Zero Dark Thirty marks a cinematic breakthrough into the realm of journalism. Just a year and a half after the Navy SEAL assault that brought Osama bin Laden’s life to a bloody conclusion, The Hurt Locker director Kathryn Bigelow has brought the story to the screen, using extensive research and aid from the White House. President Obama evidently thought this film, which has a gripping documentary feel, would be released before the election and make him look good, but it turns out he was wrong on both counts. Zero Dark Thirty (military slang for the wee hours of the morning when the attack took place) makes Obama appear somewhere between irrelevant and counterproductive in the intelligence mission that led to Bin Laden’s demise.
Young star Jessica Chastain, who last year got an Oscar nomination for The Help, gives another awards-caliber performance as a 30-year-old CIA agent named Maya who has spent 12 years tracking Bin Laden, ever since she was recruited out of high school. At CIA black sites in Pakistan and Afghanistan, she actively participates in brutal interrogation techniques including forced sleep deprivation, beatings and waterboarding. These procedures are shown as essential to learning of the existence of a courier, Abu Ahmed, whose trail would eventually lead to Bin Laden’s fortress-like lair in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
President Obama is referred to obliquely as someone who demands factual certainty (without which, it is implied, he won’t give the go-ahead for the assault, which is worrisome enough) but doesn’t appear in the film except in a clip from a real-life news program. In the clip, Obama is shown disavowing torture, which would seem to pose a major obstacle to the CIA agents watching him on television. They know too well that meddling from politicians who have no idea how difficult it is to obtain intelligence from career terrorists could easily nullify their efforts. Obama comes off looking like a weak, oblivious fool who places his own preening above the national interest. Like I said: This movie is practically a documentary.