Kathryn Bigelow’s film Zero Dark Thirty tells the story of the successful US attempt to find and kill Osama bin Laden; I am using the most common spelling of his first name, but there are different ways of transliterating Arabic names into English. The US intelligence services called him Usama bin Laden or Ladin , and he is referred to as UBL throughout the film.
The film starts with the last messages left by some of the victims of 9/11. It then shows the CIA’s attempts to track down bin Laden, culminating in his death at the hands of US Navy SEALs at Abbotabad on 2 May 2011.
The main protagonist is Maya (Jessica Chastain), a CIA analyst who is obsessed with the hunt for bin Laden. She is a fictional character, although it is unclear whether she is based on a single CIA agent, as The New York Review of Books states, or is a composite of several, as the makers of Manhunt, a documentary treatment of the story, claim.
Unlike many fictional characters with an obsession (eg Agent Mulder in The X-Files), Maya does not appear to have a personal stake in the case. Rather, she appears to be simply utterly absorbed in her job, which is to find bin Laden. She does not seem to have any life outside of her work. Even Carrie Mathison, the obsessive and bi-polar CIA agent from the TV series Homeland, with whom Maya has been compared, visited her father, sister and nieces and had a sex life.
Zero Dark Thirty is an entertaining film, which deserved its five Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Actress for Chastain, but it was fair that even better films and performances beat it in these categories, leaving it with only a joint win for Sound Editing.
The film has caused a number of controversies. It begins with one: the film-makers did not ask permission from the families of the dead to use the recordings of the last phone calls made by victims of 9/11 that are played over the opening credits.
Another is that shows the CIA obtaining vital information from torture. It has been claimed, most notably in a letter from Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.), that this intelligence actually came from other sources. Sen. McCain, captured in the Vietnam War, can give advocates of the use of torture the unanswerable reply that it did not work on him.
Michael Morell, the Acting CIA Director, distanced his agency from claims that it had co-operated closely with the film-makers in a statement that said that:
Zero Dark Thirty is a dramatization, not a realistic portrayal of the facts. CIA interacted with the filmmakers through our Office of Public Affairs but, as is true with any entertainment project with which we interact, we do not control the final product.
The Senate Intelligence Committee has just decided to drop its inquiry into how much help the CIA gave the film-makers.
The release of the film was delayed until after the US Presidential Election because it was feared that it might boost support for President Obama, since he ordered the mission that killed bin Laden. However, the film asserted that waterboarding, introduced by the Bush Administration, but banned by Obama, was a key element in finding bin Laden’s whereabouts.
Neither President nor any members of their Cabinets are portrayed by an actor in the film. The most senior officials to appear are the CIA Director (James Gandolfini) and the National Security Adviser (Stephen Dillane). Each is described by his job title rather than name in the film; the incumbents were Leon Panetta and Tom Donilon.
Overall, this is a good film, but it is marred by the rudeness shown to the families of the 9/11 victims whose last messages are broadcast without permission, and by its ambiguous attitude to torture. Not showing it would have been a whitewash, but the film shows it producing useful intelligence. The Guardian quotes Bigelow as telling the New York Film Critics Circle, who had just given her their Best Director award that:
I thankfully want to say that I’m standing in a room of people who understand that 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 trouble is that the difference between depiction and endorsement will be lost on some, who will see torture producing the evidence that led the good guys to get the bad guy, when in reality it did not.
Incidentally, the zero dark is US military code for midnight, so zero dark thirty means 0030 am, the time at which the SEALs attacked bin Laden’s compound.