TV is the place to find fictional dramatizations of stories based on real events. Lifetime is currently advertising their upcoming movie of the week about the Casey Anthony trial and the History Channel already produced a version of the operation to kill Osama bin Laden back in 2011. Feature films rarely tell stories as recent as this; consider that events surrounding Abraham Lincoln continue to produce popular movies. The only other recent example I can think of in recent history is Oliver Stone's W. (2008) which was more tongue-in-cheek spoof than serious drama.
Another complication with Zero Dark Thirty's material is that the entire world already knows the ending. Everyone has seen the picture of President Obama and his advisors huddled together in a small room monitoring the action and we all know what Osama's compound looked like from the relentless news footage of the operation's aftermath. What the audience does not know is the front end of the operation, the decade leading up to pinpointing the correct house in a town where nobody ever thought the al Qaeda mastermind would be hiding out. We also were unaware of the CIA's relentless analyst who the film claims doggedly pursued every possible lead to find bin Laden, alienating her co-workers in the process, and running close to the edge of fanaticism herself.
In 2003, Maya (Jessica Chastain) is a brand new CIA operative dropped head first into the Islamabad station and assigned to the detainee interrogation program to glean any and all information leading to the whereabouts of al Qaeda's leadership. 2003 was a time of CIA black sites, rendition, and 'enhanced' interrogation techniques. The news media had yet to enlighten the world with the definition of all of those words. Maya and her colleagues would put detainees in stress positions, humiliate them with nudity, shove them in boxes, and waterboard them over and over again. Many argue these scenes show that torture works. After repeated abuses, a detainee finally gives up a name, Abu Ahmed. Director Kathryn Bigelow does not editorialize in the torture scenes. She does not tell the audience these techniques are either effective or just plain wrong, that is for you to decide. Did the pain finally break the detainee or would they have gotten the name through more humane methods? That is also for the audience to puzzle out for themselves.
Once Maya gets the name, she obsesses over who it belongs to for close to 10 years. During this time, al Qaeda continues to conduct terrorist attacks all over the world and after each attack, Maya considers herself at fault for failing to discover the link between Abu Ahmed and bin Laden. Her co-workers, and more importantly her boss, Pakistan station chief Joseph Bradley (Kyle Chandler), grow tired of her hypotheses and wish she would just get down to the business of catching lower level bad guys. The film's first two-thirds are noticeably, and I believe deliberately, slow and methodical to make the audience feel the staggering amounts of time it took for Maya to finally track down her needle in a haystack.
Exactly how Abu Ahmed's real name lands in her lap after someone else connects a few dots is still a mystery to me. The conversation is quick, the details are fuzzy, and most likely the real way Abu Ahmed's true identity was figured out remains classified which is why Mark Boal's otherwise effective script merely glosses over such an important event. Now the heavy hitters can get to work. No actual politicians are named in the film, but it is obvious that the rotund guy who sucks all the air out of the room is CIA Director Leon Panetta (James Gandolfini) and the risk-averse politician who remains so skeptical about the mission is the National Security Advisor, Tom Donilon (Stephen Dillane). Maya's evidence is definitely thin; however, the corresponding case she makes surrounding it sounds quite convincing. She is the only person in the room who will say with 100% certainty Osama bin Laden is in that compound. She has worked too many years to even consider it is not him walking around in there.
Other skeptical people are the members of Seal Team 6 who take over the last half hour of the show. Once they get going, Maya drops out the film and the guys with guns take center stage conducting the operation on a building which looks exactly like the one we have seen in the news footage. With calm efficiency, the strike team who operate with no discernible names, but whose leaders are played by Joel Edgerton and Chris Pratt, show a very convincing version of what the assault that night may have looked like. The follow-on strategic ramifications concerning Pakistani sovereignty and bin Laden's body are all ignored. It is not that they are not important, but Zero Dark Thirty is not about that.
The film takes place down in the tactical trenches with tired analysts and operators sweating over lies and riddles from tortured detainees and bosses who expect results. Kathryn Bigelow's previous film, The Hurt Locker (2008), was even dirtier, sweatier, had more intense situations than any you will see in Zero Dark Thirty, and is overall the better film. Is it because we did not know the end of The Hurt Locker and know with certainty the inevitable conclusion to this film? Perhaps. It is most likely because the events portrayed here are just too fresh to be seen with a completely objective eye. By the way, it is too bad bin Laden didn't live just long enough to learn it was the work of a woman behind his demise.