Zero Dark Thirty: A Tale Told Well

Photograph by Richard Olley/Columbia Pictures/Everett Collection

'Zero Dark Thirty.'

The relentless drumbeat about “Zero Dark Thirty” centers on its depiction of “enhanced interrogation techniques” on a detainee named Ammar who provided the initial tip on a courier whose tracking became crucial in the 10-year hunt for Osama bin Laden.

That’s the impression the film leaves, yet the production also shows that no matter how the initial tip came about, there was not a clear path from those beatings to bin Laden’s death.

Unanswered for many, until the film opens in New York tomorrow, is the question of whether sitting through an entire two and a half hours of the retelling of the hunt for bin Laden  is another form of torture — boredom.

It’s not.

We saw the film at a D.C. screening. It’s basically a CIA-centric depiction of the hunt through the eyes of Maya (Jessica Chastain), a “targeter,” according to the press notes.

In spite of some initial introductory meetings with Pentagon officials last year, the filmmakers didn’t ask for any military assistance. We’re still waiting for the CIA’s public affairs office to tell us what assistance it provided the producers. They might not want to say.

That’s because, yes, there are the torture scenes of Ammar (Reda Kateb) — simulated drownings, dog-collar degradation, arms strung from ceiling ropes, crammed into a small wooden crate. Dan, his bearded CIA tormentor, yells repeatedly, “When you lie to me, I hurt you.” A clean-shaven Dan (Jason Clarke) later ends up at CIA headquarters in Virginia.

Still, the detainee also gets treated by his CIA handler to a hummus lunch and cigarette after his pummeling. Call that balance, I guess.

Then-President-elect Obama shows up in a mid-November 2008 post-election “60 Minutes” interview, watched by Maya. “ I’ve said repeatedly that America doesn’t torture,” Obama says.

The guts of the movie is the CIA hunt as pushed, prodded and pleaded by Maya.

Maya utters the film’s best line when the CIA director, played by a bearish, cussing and bespectacled James Gandolfini, asks,“who are you?” at his first briefing on bin Laden’s Abbottabad hideout:

“I’m the….”

I don’t want to spoil the moment.

There are some goofy scenes, for sure.

They start with the first appearance of the Islamabad CIA station chief wearing a CIA label pin. That’s later changed to an American Flag.

Then there’s a cameo of the Air Force’s once-secret “Area 51” testing range in Southern Nevada, depicting Jordan in the film, where the U.S. kept two secret, stealthy UH-60 Black Hawks used in the raid.

Maya and a group from SEAL Team Six visit the site to get a close-up look at the choppers that would make history. Maya tells the group the aircraft will be used in an operation against bin Laden. We’re left wondering how Army choppers ended up in a secret Air Force base once alleged to have held dead Martians.

Maya also spouts the messianic line of “I believe I was spared” death during several previous near-miss terrorist attacks “so I can finish the job.”

But those campy moments are few. The hunt for OBL includes finding a lost file that rekindles the chase for the presumed dead courier, the CIA bribing a Kuwaiti official with a Lamborghini in exchange for the phone number of the courier’s mother (about a $400,000 expense) and tracking his cell-phone call locations in “Pakistan” cities — mostly shot in India — with a geo-location device known in spy circles as “the magic box”.

The raid — sans any White House Situation Room depiction of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton with hand on mouth — unfolds according to the public record — on night vision goggles, with the crashed-landed Black Hawk, surgical shots and no sustained firefight.

I’m not sure whether a SEAL Team Six raider actually listened to motivational speaker Tony Robbins en route to Abbottabad, as the film depicts. But it’s a nice touch.

You’ll see the now-demolished three-story building through the gauzy green of night vision goggles and darting laser beams from rifle aiming devices as the SEALs hit the place.

They are correctly wearing four-tube goggles, as opposed to two-tube model goggles, allowing for a 120-degree field of view.

As for the end of bin Laden? Viewers should keep a vigilant ear as the SEALs clear the building. I swear I heard some whispering “Osama, Osama,” as if calling him out to play.

Still, bin Laden’s end is not an iconic moment of him peeking from a doorway and then falling back into his room from a shot to the head. Blink or dip your head to eat popcorn and you’d miss it.

Instead, muffled shots are fired at the top staircase, SEALs enter a room, one fires shots into OBL’s chest as he lays on the ground. No prolonged close-up.

One SEAL says something to the shooter like “do you know what you’ve just done?” Gun buffs will note the SEALs fired a Heckler & Koch 416 assault rifle fitted with an M2000 silencer at bin Laden. Score another one for German engineering. (The Pentagon’s never acknowledged what gun killed bin Laden, by the way.)

We barely hear the famous “For God and Country,” Geronimo line message sent on scene.

The SEAL doesn’t gloat over his kill and later is seen dutifully grabbing up computer discs and hard drives for intelligence analysis — all in a Hard Night’s Raid that “Zero Dark Thirty” depicts pretty well.

Read Bloomberg Muse critic Greg Evans’ take on the film here.

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