Wars echo, long after they end. Debates about the wisdom and rightness of a war can long outlast the war itself, and can long outlive those who fought in it. People argue to this day about whether America could have won Vietnam, or whether it should have fought there at all. Sometimes those arguments can extend to movies about a war. In 1979, Hollywood more or less re-fought the Vietnam war when Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter and Jane Fonda’s Coming Home, two movies with very different takes on that war, were rivals for the Academy award for best picture.
Zero Dark Thirty has become the center of a bitter derivative dispute about the means by which America fought terrorism. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow, Zero Dark Thirty tells the story of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden through the eyes of a young CIA officer named Maya (Jessica Chastain). From Point Break to The Hurt Locker to this, Bigelow has amassed an impressive body of work about hard bitten, driven, or even obsessed characters. Here, Bigelow takes an unflinching look at what the terrorists did, what America did to hunt them down, and the personal and professional dangers faced by those did the hunting.
Zero Dark Thirty opens with a black screen, and frantic cell phone calls for help from people trapped in the World Trade Center on 9-11, people who were trapped above the flames and beyond any possible aid. After that, we pick up the story at a CIA black site in Pakistan where Maya, not long out of training, watches a CIA colleague named Dan (Jason Clarke, in a fine performance) harshly interrogate a detainee. Dan tells her “It’s OK if you’d rather watch on the monitor”, but Maya declines. She watches in person, she learns how this is done, and she learns the interrogator’s trade. She may not be comfortable with it, especially not at first, but she doesn’t protest, she doesn’t suffer a crisis of conscience, and she doesn’t flinch from doing the job she volunteered for.
Although Chastain delivers a detailed, tightly foucused performance that brings Maya vividly to life, she isn’t given any sort of a backstory. She hasn’t got a personal life that we ever see. She has no love life that we know of, no significant other that she, or anyone else ever refers to. At times she seems a bit like Sergeant Joe Friday from Dragnet back when Dragnet was still in black and white and worth watching. All we ever see of her is her work life, and she never doubts for a moment that what she is doing is necessary, and that if the job isn’t done the consequences for the people she’s trying to protect will be grim.
But if Zero Dark Thirty is at times like Dragnet, it differs from Dragnet in one crucial respect. Joe Friday was policing a city that, at the end of the day, was under the rule of law, and he had the law on his side. Maya is operating out where American law doesn’t run, in a hostile and often lawless country. And unlike Joe Friday, she is hunting an enemy that is constantly hunting her. American embassies and compounds in this part of the world are under siege, and Americans are targets. Maya barely survives a bomb attack at a Karachi hotel. Several of her CIA colleagues at a forward base in Afghanistan are not so fortunate. As the search for Bin Laden drags on for years, it becomes clear that not only are Maya and other CIA officers targeted by Al Qaeda, they have become targeted by political critics at home. If the early parts of Zero Dark Thirty feels a bit like Dragnet, the later part, with its combination of personal and bureaucratic jeopardy, feels a bit like one of Len Deighton’s early spy thrillers.
But once Bin Laden has been located, Bigelow shifts gears again, and the assault on Bin Laden’s compound becomes a tense, high energy technothriller. This is far and away the best part of the movie, and Bigelow’s handling of it is restrained and masterful. The careful, methodical, unhurried way in which the SEALs work their way room by room through the compound, while precious minutes tick by and hostile crowds gather in the street is far more exciting than any amount of phony pyrotechnics would have been.
Kathryn Bigelow is widely, and rightly regarded as one of the smartest directors in Hollywood, so she surely knew what she was getting into when she made Zero Dark Thirty. Still, the toxic reaction of the Hollywood Left to this movie may have been something of a revelation to her about how Hollywood treats those who go off the reservation. Zero Dark Thirty does not endorse torture, or claim it was necessary, or even right. But it does show exactly what America was up against and the threat that these creatures posed. It also shows that finding and killing Bin Laden took intense dedication, and the courage to face not only the jihadists, but the politically correct Left, which was willing to fire or even prosecute other Americans at the sharp end of the fight against terrorism.
With the possible exception of United 93, Zero Dark Thirty is the best movie yet to come out of the badly named War on Terror, and it tells us something about the current state of the war. There have been many battles with the terrorists and there will be more. Al Qaeda created a massive terrorist sanctuary in the mountains of Afghanistan. They were scattered to the winds. The jihadists in Iraq resorted to savagery and mass murder in an attempt to remove its elected government. They were hunted virtually to extinction. But those who believe that terrorism ought to be treated in the same way that we treat purse snatching and vandalism, with elaborate protections of the suspect’s civil rights in courts that can be tied in knots for years on end are still deeply entrenched, and they will emerge to fight another day.