Expectations are already set as you read this review of “Zero Dark Thirty,” with a lead-in of “Hollywood Propaganda” in the title. You expect me the author to weigh in with conspiratorial accusations of the filmmakers being in bed with the CIA, or the Obama administration, or whatever angle of controversy you may have already heard about Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar nominated film.
You have been mislead by my choice of words, just as “Zero Darky Thirty” misleads their audience with a bold statement at the start of the film. It begins with the claim to be “Based on first-hand accounts of actual events.” It is true that Oscar-winning screenwriter Mark Boal (“The Hurt Locker”) did conduct exhaustive interviews with CIA staff, specialists and had unprecedented access to government files on the hunt and targeted killing of Osama Bin Laden. It is true that Jessica Chastain’s powerful portrayal as Maya is based on a real, hardnosed CIA agent who was at the core of finding Bin Laden. Conspiracy theories aside, it is true that the CIA and SEAL Team Six found and took out Bin Laden in his compound.
So how are audiences being mislead? Movies have the ability to inform and misinform the public with powerful persuasion. Especially when they are presented as “journalistic” endeavors, as the filmmakers contextualized it. Yet, when you read a journalistic piece, or watch a factual documentary, the last line or end credits do not consist of a disclaimer that the characters are fictional. Is this a found-footage horror movie, where we are told this is a true story, but in the end any similarities to real people are coincidental?
“Zero Dark Thirty” by no means lacks ambition in its production techniques and thoughtful performances to consolidate nearly 10 years of current events and complex issues. It is of personal opinion that, yes, it’s still too soon. The film’s opening audio of September 11th emergency calls played over a black screen is not a welcome hammer to the head. There are still many of us who don’t need a reminder of how horrific that day was. There is also the issue that we still don’t have all the facts about the CIA’s use of torture to find Bin Laden, so any story that proclaims journalistic integrity or a basis of truth is pure speculation.
The character of Maya (Chastain) is engaging and loveable, the filmmaking dark, yet realistic. A perfect combination to create an intriguing character portrait, immersed in the hard “truths” of her covert position and heavy obligation. This just glosses over any real search for truth within a story that strikes a tender nerve in the American mind. While this has reaped praise from respected voices like Charlie Rose, for “humanizing” the story, it is doing a disservice as we try to make sense of terrorism’s ongoing complexity.
The film gives a dangerous sense of closure to what was undoubtedly a long hard battle, but one still waged by conflicting ideals. The film’s methodical stretch of political maneuvering, and Maya’s personal struggle within the agency make the payoff everyone is waiting for a riveting experience. As SEAL Team Six infiltrates Bin Laden’s compound, we all know what’s coming, but Bigelow wants us to feel the tension and uncertainty that existed in that moment. Such crafty filmmaking does a further disservice in lending not just closure to a tense moment, but what is triumphant closure.
There is much more to say, and I certainly admire the conversation and debate the film has already triggered and will soon enflame with its wide release and show at the Oscars. Most of all, I write this in hopes that you continue the conversation, whether we underline each other’s views or step in the ring of the comments section.