Nearly 10 years ago, a Navy SEAL team flew into Abbottabad, Pakistan, under the cover of night and killed Osama bin Laden.
The moment bin Laden’s death was announced to the country and the world felt like a bittersweet victory. Nothing could ever reverse the destruction of 9/11. The gaping holes left in buildings and hearts devastated America, but on May 2, 2011, there was some semblance of justice.
I am not a war movie kind of person. Perhaps that plays straight into the stereotype of being a female, but most often I would rather skip through long fight sequences in the action movies I do watch. Yet there is one wartime movie I find a need to watch every once in a while: “Zero Dark Thirty,” a fictionalized portrayal of the CIA agent bent on tracking down bin Laden, and the Navy SEAL team which executed the raid into the compound and killed him. It’s perhaps not a true war movie, but the story is just as important.
The truth about “Zero Dark Thirty” is that we all know the story: The CIA tracked a bin Laden courier to a compound where they believed bin Laden lived. We also know how this story ends. And for a film in which we already know the end, the key is directing a compelling story. Director Kathryn Bigelow does just that, while also never shying away from the harsh realities of war, including waterboarding. Yet she never takes a particular stance, instead allowing the viewer to make up their minds about the topic.
Like I said, I’m not a true wartime movie aficionado. But the final 30 or so minutes of the film that focuses on the raid is gripping in a silent hold-your-breath way. From interviews and documents that have come out since, the portrayal of the raid is tactically and historically as accurate as a Hollywood film can get. As I watch the raid unfold, from the helicopter’s botched landing to the shooting of bin Laden, it’s easy to put myself in the shoes of how it must’ve felt in the Situation Room on the other side of the world.
The biggest direction Bigelow had was the story of Maya (Jessica Chastain), the fictional CIA agent based on the real-life CIA agent who pieced together the clues in finding bin Laden. Chastain found depth and substance in Maya, playing her with the necessary enduring grit and a poignant honesty. Maya seems to be destined for this task: life as a lone wolf fully devoted to her unforgiving work. From her seemingly naive nature at the film’s beginning, you can see the years of work wear on her, but her drive never wanes. And when Maya finally pieces together a clue that led to the finding of bin Laden’s courier, she’s relentless in her pursuit of the courier to find bin Laden, and equally as relentless as she convinces her supervisors of bin Laden’s location, which ultimately led to his death. Yet one of the most compelling moments of the film is not about Maya’s focus, but her vulnerability. After bin Laden is killed and his body brought back to the base, Maya slowly walks up to the body bag, unzips it, and nods a confirmation that it’s him. She walks out of the tent, and stands in a state of shock as crickets chirp in the night. The strangeness of the lifted weight of an enormous task accomplished is felt through Chastain’s eyes and raw emotional state. She accomplished her goal, the only goal she’s worked toward her whole career, and one that certainly left a mark in the course of history. And we’re left to think, now what?
And so, I think that today of those who relentlessly pursued tracking down the mastermind of one of the greatest attacks in American history. Who are they? Where are they? What are they doing? How are they doing?
Sometimes the best movies are those that leave questions lingering.
The movie is certainly not for all viewers. It’s sometimes difficult to watch, but yet it’s an important depiction of history that provokes thought and reminds us of those who sacrificed so much for our safety, and for whatever justice there could ever be for those we lost on 9/11, for their loved ones, and for our country.