COMMENTARY: “Zero Dark Thirty” triggers introspection about security, defense, the military’s role, and America’s place in the world
Published: January 17th, 2013
OKLAHOMA CITY — “Zero Dark Thirty” is a masterful, at times brilliant motion picture. It has received numerous professional honors, including Best Picture and four other Oscar nominations, all richly deserved.
Aside from the considerable merits of the film as a work of art, director Kathryn Bigelow’s collaboration with Mark Boal – described by the latter as “a reported film” – could prove helpful in national debate about homeland security, national defense, the role of the military and America’s place in the world. Boal has described a script-writing process that sounds a lot like traditional journalism, and the movie is anchored powerfully in the truth of 9/11 and its aftermath.
Jessica Chastain, already recognized as best actress in the Golden Globe competition, is Maya, a character based on a real American intelligence operative. Her partnership with Dan (Jason Clarke) is realistic and sometimes shocking, as the characters represent the U.S. intelligence officers seeking to find and target those responsible for the 9/11 terrorist attacks on America.
Their friend and colleague is Jessica (played by Jennifer Ehle). Al-Qaida’s first attempt to kill her and Maya is one of the most powerful moments in the movie.
Even more than is the case in most films based on actual events, there is controversy over some “compacting” of characters, events and chronology in the story line. Public officials, past and present, are all over the map about possible national security leaks that fed into the process that yielded Boal’s “reported film.”
Eventually, Americans will learn the truth. They can decide then if this was “merely” unusually powerful but largely fictitious drama, or a more-or-less truthful accounting.
A first-time viewer does not have to track every Arabic name or character, or each American operative, to stay with the momentum of Maya’s plausible linking of diverse threads of evidence to reach a final, and accurate, conclusion that she has found the lair of Usama bin Laden, mastermind of 9/11, in the heart of Abbottabad, Pakistan.
The use of torture to gain information from terrorist operatives is presented graphically, although Obama administration officials – not to mention several Bush-era operatives — have challenged the accuracy of that part of the story line. Indeed, there is robust bipartisan debate about whether torture is actually effective in the long run.
In recent days, Bigelow has insisted the movie is not intended as a defense of torture tactics. To the contrary, she said at a recent event, “depiction is not endorsement, and if it was, no artist could ever portray inhumane practices; no author could ever write about them; and no film-maker could ever delve into the knotty subjects of our time.”
The film’s title is a soldier’s term for 30 minutes after midnight, but also conveys what Bigelow says is “the darkness and secrecy that cloaked the entire decade-long mission.”
For nearly two hours, the dominant plot line is the drive to pin down the whereabouts of bin Laden through both human intelligence and high tech methods. Performers like Kyle Chandler, Mark Strong, Stephen Dillance and James Gandolfini give authentic-feeling portrayals of determined patriots caught in personal tumult, ambiguous morality and difficult decisions.
Only in the final 25 minutes or so does this become a traditional war story. The picture takes off — and takes on deep urgency — relating the exploits of the U.S. Navy Seals who carried out the mission. A couple dozen actors, led by Joel Edgerton (as Patrick) and Chris Pratt (as Justin) form a tight, compelling ensemble for this story within a story. Even with the outcome of the mission so well-known, Bigelow makes it fresh and real in the viewing.
Unaddressed in the movie, but a crucial legacy of America’s war on terror, is the abiding challenge modern warfare presents to constitutional governance.
Congress never issued a Declaration of War in this or any other conflict since the Second World War. The War Powers Act — and the congressional debates before military action in the First Gulf War and the post-9/11 decade of conflict – cannot be imagined to qualify as meeting the constitutional process envisioned by the Framers of the U.S. Constitution.
The tactics employed – or allegedly employed — to find and eliminate bin Laden are properly at the center of this story.
No sympathy here for the monster who conceived and inspired the attacks on our country in 2001. However, there is abiding, even deepening, distress at the knowledge of artifices used in the search for this evil man — such as sending into the Bin Laden compound in Pakistan a faux health care worker offering vaccinations “for the children” – while actually trying to get evidence that someone with bin Laden’s DNA was in the building.
As awareness of this tactic has grown across the planet, radical Islamists are issuing death threats and mullahs are declaring fatwas aimed at health care workers.
The story narrative assumes the necessity for a manned operation to take out Bin Laden. Air attacks or even smaller drone-dropped weapons might have missed the target, or resulted in civilian deaths.
In the film, the Americans are depicted avoiding most, but not all, non-combatant deaths in the mission to kill bin Laden. As everyone who sees “Zero Dark Thirty” already knows, the whole world learned about the successful mission soon after its conclusion. Although “the fog of war” still obscures some details, the military operation, including use of previously unknown “stealth” helicopters, is now widely understood.
However, secrecy clouds many aspects of the continuing war on terror, including the use of unmanned drones, depicted in this film as a powerful weapon in the war on terror, and as indispensible elements in the effort to locate bin Laden.
Drone programs have minimal congressional oversight, with no known closed-door briefings for elected representatives. Transparency, even after the fact, is not a word associated with any aspect of the U.S. military’s use of unmanned drones, even as news reports come closer to recording successful missions in “real time.”
For instance, David Wood reported Jan. 17 on Huffington Post about a successful drone attack, on January 3 in Afghanistan, that killed six Taliban commanders, including Mullah Nazir — a “warlord who boasted of his ties with Al Qaeda and recently banned polio vaccinations for local children.”
Although Americans overwhelmingly support use of drones to target top terrorist suspects abroad, military analysts say use of drones is likely unsustainable, and might violate the Constitution.
Drone-related issues will undoubtedly get an airing in the forthcoming confirmation hearings for John Brennan, the president’s terrorism adviser and now his nominee to run the Central Intelligence Agency.
It is a stretch to call “Zero Dark Thirty” entertaining, in the traditional sense of movie entertainment. It is rated R and might, at two hours and 37 minutes, prove exhausting to many viewers. However, it is a motion picture worth every minute, as was “United 93,” a “real-time” recreation of the horror inflicted on a planeload of innocent passengers on 9/11.
“Zero Dark Thirty” is compelling and highly recommended.