Release date: June 10th, case 2013
Running time: 157 minutes
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Writer: Mark Boal
Composer: Alexandre Desplat
Cast: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Joel Edgerton
Do you remember Monday 10th of September, 2001? While I’m usually good with dates this is one day that’s now forgotten. It was like any other day that year; I would’ve woken up, gone out for a walk, done some shopping and spent the day either watching television or playing on the computer, and yet it’s such an important day. It was the last day of our pre-9/11 world. We could never imagine the horror of what would happen the following morning in America. It was also the day before many of us would come to now associate with a man we’d never heard of before – Osama bin Laden.
He was the son of building tycoon Sheikh Mohammed bin Awad bin Laden who in 1931 founded the Saudi Binladin Group, a multinational construction conglomerate which today is considered the largest construction firm in the world. After Sheikh Mohammed’s death in 1968 in a helicopter crash, Osama is said to have inherited $80 million, a small sum in his father’s vast fortune, but he was – it’s believed – the tenth child of the Sheikh’s estimated fifty-four children.
After founding the global militant Islamist organization al-Qaeda in 1988, in opposition to the Soviet War in Afghanistan, Osama offered the services of his mujahideen to King Fahd to protect Saudi Arabia from the Iraqi army in 1990, but when the king instead chose to allow U.S. and allied forces to deploy troops into Saudi territory he spoke out and was banished and forced to live in exile in Sudan. While there he continued to speak out against King Fahd and his passport and Saudi citizenship were revoked. His family disowned him, his assets were frozen and the Binladin Group forced him to surrender his shares in the company.
Al-Qaeda’s ill-fated attempts to assassinate Egyptian prime minister, Atef Sedki led to public opinion turning against Islamist bombings; mass arrest and executions of al-Jihad’s members followed, as did Osama’s expulsion in 1996 by the Sudanese government. It’s now known that the Clinton Administration had numerous opportunities to arrest Osama but these attempts were overruled by his National Security Adviser. It’s also around this time that al-Qaeda’s base was relocated to Afghanistan under the protection of a new emerging force, the Taliban. It’s here that al-Qaeda announced its jihad as a way to force foreign troops and interests out of what they considered Islamic lands. This lead to the Khobar Towers bombing in 1996, the U.S. embassy bombings in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania in 1998 and the USS Cole bombing in 2000. Still, there was something much bigger on the horizon and Zero Dark Thirty is a film which traces the decade-long hunt for the man whom many believe to be the mastermind behind the September 11th attacks.
After opening with a title card which tells us “The following motion picture is based on first hand account of actual events” it then wastes no time in connecting the World Trade Center attacks to Osama. It does this playing audio extracts of 911 callers trapped in the Twin Towers. Among them is Melissa Doi’s call and against a black screen she can be heard asking “are they going to be able to get somebody up here?” before going on to panic that she’s trapped on the 83rd floor with it being very hot and telling the 911 dispatcher there’s smoke filling up the floor. From there the narrative shifts to 2003 to a CIA black site with the interrogation of Ammar al-Baluchi (Reda
Kateb), a detainee who’s believed to have transferred funds to the hijackers of September 11th attacks. His interrogation and torture is carried out by Dan (Jason Clarke) and observed by Maya (Jessica Chastain), a CIA officer who works on gathering intelligence that might lead to Osama’s capture.
We then witness some of the bureaucracy involved in intelligence gathering as we follow Dan and Maya back to a meeting where they share what they’ve been learning from Ammar before returning to interrogate him some more. By now he’s defecated himself several times over, he’s bleeding and stripped of his pants. Dan strings him up by his arms and tortures him some more. He’s forced to wear a dog collar and walk on all fours like an animal. Maya watches and we get a sense that she’s struggling internally with watching a man’s basic human rights violated to such a level, but she tells him “You can help yourself by being truthful.” And this is as much justification for U.S. interrogation techniques such as water-boarding and sleep deprivation as we’ll ever get in Zero Dark Thirty.
What happens next is another part of Zero Dark Thirty I found troublesome. Using footage of the 2005 London bombings, the film attempts to form a link between this and al-Qaeda, despite the official report (compiled and released before the investigation was anywhere near completed, and like the 9/11 and Warren Commission; ignoring vital testimonies) never reaching a satisfactory conclusion of this. However, the film merely glances at this attack and doesn’t incorporate it into its narrative, but included here it manipulates our emotions and plays on our ability to take things on faith while ignoring evidence that indicates otherwise. Thus is the power of images.
Nevertheless, Maya’s intelligence gathering helps them score the name ‘Abu Ahmed’, a man they believe is working as a personal courier for Osama, relaying messages between him and Abu Faraj al-Libbi, a senior member of the al-Qaeda. After Abu Faraj’s capture we see Maya now leading the interrogations. She orders his torture when he refuses to give up information or admit that he knows who Abu Ahmed is. This in turn leads them on a hunt for several more years and during that time we see how Maya evolves into a woman who does what’s needed to get a job done for her country. Surviving the 2008 Islamabad Marriott Hotel bombing, she then has to accept the possibility that under the new administration she might be prosecuted for being involved in torturing detainees.
As doubt begins to fall on the validity of the operation she’s invested so much of her life in, Maya has to prove her seniors wrong. As it all comes down to a case of human error and misidentifying a photo, the operation to raid a compound where Maya 100% believes Osama is located is put into place, and we all know the outcome of the events on the night of May 2nd, 2011 because we’ve all read the official accounts of it in the media. This brings me to my main criticism of Zero Dark Thirty.
Despite a compelling performance by Jessica Chastain as a woman whose last name we never learn, Zero Dark Thirty, much like Code Name: Geronimo (2012) follows the official account without ever calling it into question or asking many of the questions we’ve all asked since that night – such as “why did the world’s most wanted man not stand trial?” Since the September 11th attacks he’s become a modern-day bogey man, a ghost in stories and in this film we never even see him. It’s all a little too Wild West where it seems more about revenge than it does about justice and we never see or hear of anyone questioning the ethics of these decisions and whose good it really serves to shoot first and ask questions later. If at all.
The founder of Static Mass Emporium and one of its Editors in Chief is a composer and music producer with a philosophy degree. Static Mass is where he lives his passion for film and writing about it. A fan of film classics, documentaries and World Cinema, Patrick prefers films with an impeccable way of storytelling that reflect on the human condition.
You can find his music on Soundcloud .