Forgoing truth for drama: Kathryn Bigelow’s not-so-true story Zero Dark Thirty

Reviewed in this essay: Zero Dark Thirty, written by Mark Boal. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow. Starring Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, and Kyle Chandler. Running Time: 157 minutes. Opening in Toronto Jan. 11.

Kathryn Bigelow’s Academy Award-winning The Hurt Locker (2009) succeeded as a straightforward study of military bomb disarmers. Although the film was set during the second Iraq War, Bigelow forewent larger questions of the war’s purpose and politics, and instead choose to focus on how a group of soldiers disarmed enemy explosives in highly visible places in Baghdad. The Hurt Locker felt so perfect because of its unerring modesty, playing out as a series of nerve-wracking vignettes highlighting the grim professionalism of the soldiers themselves.

It is that professionalism, and the complex demands of operational mechanics, that is once again Bigelow’s focus in Zero Dark Thirty, her nearly three hour retelling of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden. We are firmly in Bigelow’s territory here as she details, with gritty precision, the nuts and bolts of the CIA’s manhunt for the Al-Qaeda chief.

Leading the hunt is intelligence analyst Myra (Jessica Chastain), who is not so much a character as a symbol of Puritan dedication. We know nothing about Myra’s past or future, and that’s just the way Bigelow wants it: this is a story of how, not why or by whom. And thus, Bigelow forgoes the personal lives of her characters, thrusting us instead into the marathon rounds of detainee interrogation, satellite surveillance, wire-tapping, and educated deduction that defined the real-life manhunt.

The film’s final half hour, devoted to the raid on Bin Laden’s compound, acts as an elegiac denouement to the grinding journey. And yet even here, Bigelow forgoes melodramatic grandstanding. Professional and measured, the Navy SEALs execute the raid like any other operation. They have a job to do, plain and simple. The larger philosophizing can be left to those of us on the home front.

Jessica Chastain as intelligence analyst Myra.

Bigelow scarcely wades into the massive diversion of resources that was Iraq II, nor the Bush administration’s bureaucratic chicaneries vis-a-vis the CIA, or the national debates about torture and its moral implications. This film is simply about how Osama was caught and killed. In that measured respect it is gripping, building impressive tension over its considerable length.

And yet Bigelow’s reticence to engage in larger overall moral issues has costs. Already, fellow filmmaker Alex Gibney has criticized the film’s positive depiction of torture as morally indefensible. American senators John McCain and Dianne Feinstein have written to the head of Sony Pictures accusing the film of “perpetuating the myth that torture is effective.”

Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal will have to justify their decision to portray torture as having led to obtaining information crucial to finding Bin Laden, an impression that has been successfully rebutted by the US Senate Intelligence Committee.

Despite the seeming objectivity of Bigelow’s cinema verité approach, her noted omissions are political choices that she, as an artist, has made. Ultimately, her relatively positive depiction of the US’s questionable detainee program is an aesthetic act she will have to stand by. How audiences will react to the amazing cinematic craft on display here when they learn of the factual inaccuracies of the film is an open question.