The screen goes dark. Suddenly, muffled, crackling voices escape the speakers, as the date 'September 11, 2001' flashes across the screen. There is no image; only terrified voices punctuated by sirens and thunderous explosions—the last exchange is between a sobbing woman and a 911 telephone operator: “I’m going to die, aren’t I?” she gasps, and the operator’s words become meaningless in the face of her impending doom, before the massive and unprecedented tragedy at the World Trade center a dozen years ago.
Zero Dark Thirty tells the tale of American anti-terrorist efforts in Pakistan and Afghanistan, beginning with the infamous interrogation techniques used in the nascent days of the Iraqi war and slowly developing into a frenzied information search using advanced tracking technology. Sent in 2003 to a detention camp in Pakistan, Maya (Jessica Chastain) has been assigned by the Central Intelligence Agency to aid in the efforts to locate Osama bin Laden, the murderous keystone of the al-Qaeda terrorist network. Though bin Laden – referred to by his followers as “the Sheikh” – is virtually invisible, Maya extracts multiple references of a certain “Abu Ahmed”, who she believes to be a top-priority courier for perhaps the most wanted man in America. Her life is henceforth subsumed in an all-powerful desire to find the aforementioned courier; years pass, the trail goes cold, and the world endures multiple terrorist attacks, including the horrific July 7th bus-bombing in London, 2005.
The audience sits, impatient, for everyone knows the ending already; but we need to see it, as a reassurance. Finally, by means of cell-phone tracking technology, they follow the courier to a Pakistani city called Abbottabad, and it seems the end is near: not so. The movie continues for at least another hour, detailing the bureaucratic barriers and lack of concrete evidence that face Maya as she desperately tries to convince her superiors of the presence of Osama in Abottabad.
A convenient fiction in this cinematic adaptation of the operation is that there was only one advocate for the invasion of Abottabad mansion – the screenwriters seemed to think that audience empathy would be far too diluted if there were multiple 'heroes', and therefore thought it best to concentrate what must have been the efforts of many CIA operatives into one belligerent redhead, one 'underdog' that audiences can root for.
Ultimately, Maya gets her way, and two helicopters full of highly trained navy SEALs are sent to Abbottabad mansion. Stealth and discretion are crucial to this operation, but neither is manifested as one helicopter clumsily crashes into the yard of the house. Still, the SEALs enter the building, and for an excruciating twenty minutes they find everyone except for bin Laden, the personification of a mix between the Devil and the Holy Grail. Finally, finally, one SEAL shoots him – and he is dead. The pressure lifts, catharsis ensues. Yes, on May 6th, 2011, America killed Osama bin Laden. Yes, we did.
The movie portraying the nuances of the operation is long, perhaps purposefully so, as an analogy of the extraordinary amount of time dedicated to the search for this one man. The acting is unexceptional; I don’t expect anyone to get an Oscar for his or her performance. However, it is a movie well worth seeing: it documents the time and toil invested in eliminating a nefarious and malevolently influential man. Call it vengeance, justice, or what have you – it is still a powerful truth.
You can catch 'Zero Dark Thirty' at the wonderful DCA until this Thursday.
Images compiled by Lucy Thomas.