Kathryn Bigelow teams once again with screenwriter Mark Boal (The Hurt Locker) to create a captivating military-style thriller. Focusing on the American efforts to capture and kill Osama bin Laden, Bigelow and Boal make some daring decisions which anger some and please others. This review will be too short to address all the various allegations and controversy surrounding this film, though I will mention a few. One such accusation is that the film is partisan and was intended to serve as elections propaganda for the Obama administration. IMHO this is completely baseless. If anything, in the film’s brief mentioning of Obama, the President comes across as someone who hurt the CIA by ordering an immediate cease and decease to the torture techniques used prior to his first term in office. Another allegation that was refuted by multiple sources, claims that the administration allowed the filmmakers unlimited access to classified information. This was strongly denied by all parties involved, and was never proven. Finally, there are various accusations that the filmmakers were either pro-torture or, at least, were presenting torture as essential for intelligence work. Michael Morell, acting director of the CIA sent a public letter to the agency's employees, writing that Zero Dark Thirty "takes significant artistic license, while portraying itself as being historically accurate" and that the film "creates the strong impression that the enhanced interrogation techniques that were part of our former detention and interrogation program, were the key to finding Bin Laden. That impression is false. (...) [T]he truth is that multiple streams of intelligence led CIA analysts to conclude that Bin Laden was hiding in Abbottabad."
The filmmakers themselves stated that they were not making a stand for or against torture but rather that they made an effort to show what they believed really happened, leaving it to us, the audience to judge whether such moral price is justifies. After seeing the film, I tend to side with the filmmakers.
As to the film itself – there is no doubt Bigelow is a very skilled director. She and Boal face a challenge of taking a story whose ending is known in advance, and retelling it in a manner that will be engaging. They do so with great mastery, creating a gripping movie. My main issue with this film is the claims made at the movie’s start about it being a true depiction of the events. This is not some small forgotten story one can state is "based on" or "inspired by" true events. Thus a statement that the film is close to a docudrama is inappropriate as, while watching the film its quite clear the filmmakers took quite a bit of artistic liberty. It can either be one or the other, in this case not both. The CIA made it clear there was no "agent Maya" who almost single handedly led the hunt for Bin Laden, and I tend to believe their claim. From a plot perspective, Maya, a character exceptionally well-played by Jessica Chastain, serves several purposes. As a CIA freshwoman at the film’s start, she enables the audience to be brought into the search for Bin Laden and the CIA inner works, at eyelevel. Maya (a name which means illusion in Hinduism) also serves as means to connect the plotline which spans a decade. Yet as this agent character is so central to the plot, her fictional depiction has some weaknesses that could have been better addressed. She evolves through the story but remains very much one-dimensional as most of the other characters. Bigelow and Boal did a much better job in that respect with their main character in The Hurt Locker. Another sticky point for me is the Pakistani doctor, the real one is still rotting in the Pakistani jail. After Bin Laden’s elimination, it was made known to the public that this doctor proved essential in terms of intelligence. Yet in the film he is mentioned only in the passing, further discrediting the movie.
Despite my reservations, Zero Dark Thirty is a masterpiece in its own right. It is brave in its depictions and unapologetic style. It is riveting and full of craft. I look forward to learning what will be Bigelow’s next project be.