You know the beginning and you know the end, but it’s the way director Kathryn Bigelow tells the middle in her riveting movie “Zero Dark Thirty” that amazed me.
I hope you see it. I’m going to see it again. It should win many awards, including for best picture. When I first saw Bigelow interviewed by Charlie Rose years ago, I knew I had to watch the movies she would make. She’s a painter, and there’s something about the precision of her mind, the honesty in how she discussed her work. Even before her Oscar-winning film “The Hurt Locker” came out, I was hooked.
“Zero Dark Thirty” has an even finer edge. There’s an eerie neutrality to it. But remember, it isn’t history. It’s a movie. The good histories will be written years from now, by proper historians who don’t lust for celebrity, and they will separate what happened from all the propaganda and the politics.
Right now, we’re still in the propaganda and political stage. The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks are fading in the American mind. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have left our country numb. Yet even before Osama bin Laden was killed, America sought some kind of safe psychic distance from the events, and from the people we were back then, when we were afraid and demanded protection.
This movie brings all that back to us.
It also confronts us, forcing us again to face up to things. We wanted revenge, we wanted heads, we wanted safety or the illusion of it. We just didn’t want to deal with the complications. Most of us, like the politicians, wanted to keep our hands clean, and so we let others do the dirty work.
There are no clean hands in “Zero Dark Thirty.” There are, however, resolute people doing ugly things. And now our politicians are fighting it out, arguing that torture was terrible and the intelligence community leaked too much information to the filmmakers. There could be hearings, featuring more bureaucrats and more politics.
All that will continue to generate fog so thick that we can’t see through it, as if by design. And that’s why it’s best to remind ourselves, again, that “Zero Dark Thirty” is only a movie. But if you’re looking for a rousing Hollywood spectacle, this isn’t it. Hollywood spectacles often offer big speeches by the heroes. Here, there aren’t any big, impassioned speeches, except for one, given by a top CIA official played by Mark Strong, but it falls flat and for a reason.
He’s speaking to hunters about hunting, and all his noise is just that – noise. The hunters aren’t armed with guns, but with their brains. They’re CIA analysts and operations people tracking down bin Laden and his people, so the Navy SEALs can kill them.
The movie begins where it began for America, on Sept. 11, 2001. The screen is dark and emergency calls are being made, from terrified people trapped in the twin towers in New York City that are about to fall and claim nearly 3,000 lives.
“I can’t breathe!” says a woman. “I’m on the floor, and I can’t breathe. I’m going to die here. It’s so hot I’m burning up!”
It’s important to remember that we watched it all happen, watched them jump, watched the buildings crash. Soon we knew who was responsible. But while many of us went on with our lives and let others fight the wars, the bin Laden hunters had only the hunt.
The lead CIA officer character, Maya, played by Jessica Chastain, is the one who remains constant. Some of her colleagues take refuge in bureaucracy. Others in zealotry, brutalizing prisoners (and in the process, brutalizing themselves), burning out after weighing themselves down with sin.
But she doesn’t break. Sin isn’t heavy on her shoulders. She’s a hunter. And she’s relentless.
“Politics are changing,” she’s told by Dan, her CIA boss, played by Jason Clarke, after he has just waterboarded another al-Qaida figure. “You don’t want to be the last one holding the dog collar when the oversight committee comes.”
This movie gets the politics. Some characters know they have to sacrifice themselves to political hearings run by politicians of the publicly clean hands. They do so to win favors in order to get intelligence they need. One even agrees to testify before a committee if he’s given a vital phone number. It involves a Lamborghini, but I won’t spoil that for you.
There were concerns by many that this film would turn out to be some kind of propaganda coup for President Obama. I didn’t see it that way. Instead, I saw Maya and her bosses fighting with the Obama White House bureaucrats, day after day after day, the worried bureaucrats afraid of political risk, while the hunters demanded to hunt.
The entire business is cynical, political and absolutely necessary. In all organizations during times of crisis, there are those who do the work and others who cover their flanks. The ones who cover their flanks usually survive. But they’re not the ones who succeed.