Zero Dark Thirty: A film of our times

WHERE IS OSAMA BIN LADEN? Jessica Chastain's Maya tries to figure it out. Photo from the 'Zero Dark Thirty' Facebook page

WHERE IS OSAMA BIN LADEN? Jessica Chastain's Maya tries to figure it out.

Photo from the 'Zero Dark Thirty' Facebook page

MANILA, Philippines - Fair warning: "Zero Dark Thirty" is NOT for the faint of heart nor small of bladder.

Clocking in at two and a half hours, it shows us the protracted, near-decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden and then culminates in a 30-minute real-time re-enactment of the op.

It begins with a long, excruciating torture sequence, illustrating how enemy combatants are brutally and systematically worn down until they divulge whatever information is wanted.

”It’s biology, bro,” Jason Clarke’s CIA operative Dan explains.

Watch a 'Zero Dark Thirty' CIA featurette here:

The cold, unaffected nature with which the CIA operatives treat their detainees is part of the controversy of the film, and it’s an interesting entry point for thought.

The question has been: Is "Zero Dark Thirty" an endorsement of torture? Some people have said yes, because of the graphic, realistic ways in which torture has been depicted (if you've read the Abu Ghraib and other records, then these torture methods that are shown were the actual ones employed), and how the information from that torture led to actionable intel.

But I am one to argue that "Zero Dark Thirty" makes no endorsement whatsoever. In fact, it is the film’s unwillingness to endorse anything that makes it challenging. 

Watch this interview with lead actress Jessica Chastain:

What filmmaker Kathryn Bigelow (who so truly deserves an Oscar nomination for Best Director) does is she creates a film that leaves the politics to us.

It is cold and detached, and almost dogged in its unwillingness to editorialize. What she does is she shows us what happens, in as realistic a fashion as possible. This is done by applying a cinema verite approach, lots of handheld cam, lots of scenes that we seem to have walked into and don’t seem staged, bringing us into conversations that we might not have the full context of and have to catch up with.

The burden is on the viewer to get their bearings in this extremely fast-paced film that strings together briefings, meetings, stake-outs, and terrorist attacks. 

Watch this interview with cast members Kyle Chandler and Jennifer Ehle:

The tension is amazing and the moral questions that it forces upon us even more so.

Torturers fail to get actionable intel and a hotel full of people is gunned down. Should they have pressed harder to save those people? Is torture unacceptable, even if it would have saved those people? Is becoming a monster the only way to defeat a monster? Who is the monster in this context?

The film manages to ask all of these questions, but brilliantly resists the impulse to answer them. It also does not seek to justify any of the actions. "Zero Dark Thirty’s" cold detachment is committed to merely showing us what happened.

This might disturb viewers looking for answers, for comfort, for something to believe in. But that’s part of why it works for me, because it asks me to look at these frightening, disturbing things, and ask myself:

Can I live with this? Can I condone this? Can I condemn this? 

Watch this interview with director Kathryn Bigelow:

Technical mastery is something that Kathryn Bigelow has exhibited before, particularly with her last win with "The Hurt Locker."

What I see here is her pushing her skills and talents even further. This has a much larger scope, the scenes are bigger, the stakes higher. And make no mistake about it, this isn’t a gung-ho shoot-em-up action flick.

It is a procedural, walking us through the issues of intel collection, surveillance, and the politics of getting resources allocated and operations approved. Even the tedium and the frustration are packed with tension.

Like the similarly snubbed Ben Affleck with "Argo," Kathryn Bigelow gets a story that we all know the ending to, and yet retells it in such a way that we are biting our nails and holding our breaths as we watch it unfold. 

Watch this interview with screenwriter and producer Mark Boal (with Bigelow):

Jessica Chastain has gotten a best actress nomination for her turn as Maya, the agent doggedly pursuing what she believes will lead the CIA to Bin Laden. She’s surrounded by a great cast.

I feel that Reda Kateb who plays Ammar, a prisoner who is tortured extensively, deserves some credit, too. Then again, everyone here deserves credit for establishing and maintaining a level of believability that only pushes us further into the reality of the film. 

"Zero Dark Thirty" is a film that grabs you by the throat, holds you down, and forces you to face things that are far from pretty or comfortable. It makes you think, challenges your beliefs and principles. It chronicles one of the darkest periods in recent history, and unceremoniously shows us a major aspect of the War on Terror.

It is a film of our times, and unashamedly so.

Whether we should be sad or ashamed that we live in times that allow for events like these is another matter. It shows us the world that we live in.

And it is a frightening, compelling portrayal. - Rappler.com