“Zero Dark Thirty” contains none of the elements normally associated with successful Hollywood filmmaking. There’s no romance. There are no big names (well, Jessica Chastain is a rising star, but there are many who have not yet heard of her). There’s no fantastic computer graphic imagery to wow the viewer. No stirring theme music, or breathtaking vistas. No dashing period costumes. The dialogue is sometimes difficult to hear, and the story line frequently difficult to follow. Many characters appear and disappear without introduction or explanation. There are intermittent subtitles. There’s no sex, and the only nudity is connected to degradation torture. Who, exactly, would want to see this?
Well, probably about half the country. This is the story of how we got Osama bin Laden. It’s told in a documentary style, beginning with chilling auditory sequences (on a blank screen) from the 9/11 disaster. Maya (Chastain, without makeup or glamorous wardrobe), is a young CIA minion who gets assigned to work on the high priority of tracking the terrorists responsible. As we all now know, some parts of that discovery effort were easier than others. Yes, we found out who the operatives were, but who were their bosses, and where are they? Middle Eastern terrorist cells are notoriously difficult to penetrate, particularly by Westerners. Maya, through her remote assignments in Afghanistan and Pakistan, got to know some of the CIA field operatives who died trying. And that made her even more determined. The hours she spent examining interrogation tapes (yes, the Guantanamo Bay detainees come into play also, at least indirectly) and video surveillance, including satellite imagery, yield precious little positive information.
Meanwhile, the politics change, the administration changes, bureaucrats come and go, and the hunt for Osama kind of gets put on the back burner. Many assume that he’s simply hiding out in some cave in the wilderness, but Maya remains unconvinced that he could run any worldwide terrorist organization without high-tech communication. She thinks he’s holed up in a big city somewhere, and sending out couriers with messages to his terrorist cells. The trick is to find the courier, and then follow him.
The sequence at the end, where the Navy SEALs actually attack the compound by helicopter at night, is positively thrilling, despite director Kathryn Bigelow’s decision that the viewer would see the operation as if through the night-vision goggles of the soldiers. Sometimes it’s difficult to tell exactly what’s happening, but that is indeed a predictable part of any covert operation like this. In a way, the ending is kind of anticlimatic, especially considered in light of Maya (and many others) dedicating the prime years of young adulthood to this one goal, of seeing one terrorist eliminated, when obviously there are so many others ready and willing to take his place. But this is the American spy effort at its best: persistent as a hound dog on a faint scent, and just getting the job done, despite the personal cost, even if there are no personal accolades afterwards.
Yes, those of us with patriotic blood in our veins will thrill to this true story, where the 9/11 mastermind is finally punished, and the good guys win. We walk out of the dark theater chanting internally, “U.S.A.! U.S.A. ! U.S.A!” And how many of us would enjoy doing that?
Ronald P. Salfen is the minister at St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.