Grail Quest: The Hunt For Meaning And Osama Bin Laden in “Zero Dark Thirty”

The following has been designated EYES ONLY BLACK LEVEL


CIA Code Intercept: AA078XHT_13


Full Transcript follows:





Speakers Identified as:

Rob Wickings [confirmed links to ‘The Reading Faction’ and the UKZDL] –


Clive Ashenden [see file #8H57856969 – Prague; file #8K00017868 – Cairo] –


Chris Rogers [suspected M15 case officer]





‘Zero Dark Thirty’ is the story of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden. CIA operative Maya (Jessica Chastain: ‘Lawless’; ‘The Help’) – a composite character based on several real life CIA operatives – joins up just after the infamous series of al-Qaeda terrorist attacks on US soil on September 11th 2001. We follow the hunt from her perspective from 2001 through to the eventual raid by US Navy SEALS and the death of Bin Laden in May 2011.

The movie starts with a card informing us that ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ is “based on first-hand accounts of actual events”. Then over black we hear audio recordings from 9/11; a simple white on black title card: “September 11, 2001”. After this sober opening we watch as Maya is initiated into the life of a CIA field operative by Dan (Jason Clarke: ‘Lawless’; ‘Public Enemies’); and the use of torture as an interrogation technique.

So, I guess we should begin with the big controversy. There have been lots of heated words bandied around about this film, and a lot of vitriol targeted at director Kathryn Bigelow. It all centres around one question: Does ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ perpetuate the myth that torture is effective? Or to put it even more specifically: Does it say that Osama Bin Laden would not have been found without the use of torture?


Any film claiming to be based on real events will provoke questions as to the precise meaning of that phrase this time round, and quite rightly too. Not unexpectedly, its director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal have been condemned for depicting – wrongly, in those critics’ view – a key piece of intelligence as being sourced from the practise of ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’, including waterboarding, on detainees held in CIA ‘black’ (deniable) sites. Many have also directed opprobrium at the film for condoning, apparently by logical extension from the above, such methods.

Leaving aside whether this type of criticism is relevant when assessing what is after all a drama, the fact is that Zero Dark Thirty’s narrative is bookended with on-screen disclaimers so carefully worded that no-one could be under any apprehension that what falls between is a documentary, in every respect beholden to the truth. The film is more heavily wrapped in caveats than the US flag, which fortunately frees one to adjudicate on its merits as a piece of cinema rather than a piece of propaganda.

Those controversial scenes open the film, which has the effect of dropping the viewer as well as Jessica Chastain’s Maya into the story not at the beginning but at some point thereafter; we do not know how detainee Ammar arrived or what he did, only that what he knows is important. Dan, the CIA agent asking the questions, is a neatly-drawn character for whom this is just another job and where, away from the restrictions of D.C., he can grow a beard and keep pet monkeys. A thoroughly convincing portrayal by Jason Clarke lends real believability to this man who could be from Silicon Valley, California instead of Langley, Virginia. Despite these suggestions of freedom leading to improper behaviour, it is still difficult to understand how Bigelow and Boal’s rather dispassionate delineation of the torture itself could be interpreted as endorsement.


The movie certainly doesn’t shy away from its torture scenes. As the movie is told chronologically, we get all the torture in the first twenty minutes of the film.

For me, as with much of the movie there’s some ambiguity here. That’s largely due to the spare documentary style Bigelow employs, and the question of just how much US government/military assistance was provided to the production. Writer Mark Boal is a journalist, and brings an unsentimental eye to the hunt. But is this ‘embedded’ journalism? The movie doesn’t say torture works, but crucially it doesn’t 100% say it doesn’t work either. We see torture not working on one suspect, then a more friendly approach yielding results. But would that new approach have worked without applying the torture first? Ambiguity though, is not the same as tacit approval.


I'm with Chris on this one. I'll admit to a feeling of bemusement around the claims that Zero Dark Thirty is in any way an endorsement of torture. The plain fact is that Dan, Maya and their cohort get nothing useful from their sessions in the black sites. In fact, the opposite is true. Witness the moment before Ammar is locked into a box, when he's asked on what day an attack is likely to happen. Ammar, sobbing, lists all seven days of the week. For me, it's pretty clear that good old fashioned tradecraft and, when all else fails bribery are the tools that led Maya and her team to Osama's compound.


Moving freely from Pakistan to Afghanistan to Washington, Boal’s screenplay maintains one’s interest whilst Bigelow’s camerawork and Greg Fraser’s superb digital cinematography seduces one’s eye. As in The Hurt Locker, Bigelow often favours medium and wide shots when framing her action and relatively long takes, a refreshing approach that allows the locations to breathe and reflects the evident care put into set decoration, atmosphere casting and location (Jordan and India stand in for Afghanistan and Pakistan, though not without controversy in the case of the latter). This is especially rewarding in two sequences when teams successfully attempt to locate the phone signal from bin Laden’s courier in crowded markets and emplace look-outs along the highway that he travels to find his home. The colour palette shifts from warm oranges, golds and browns in the day-lit desert scenes to cool white office interiors to the startlingly-rendered grey night of the final act.

Both of these stylistic choices come together in one of the film’s most effective scenes, as a CIA team awaits a long-planned meeting with a vital contact. Taking place at an American military base in the open desert, it stretches from the morning to late afternoon and is an essay in tonality and tension that rises to a remarkable height before breaking. It is of course closely reminiscent of the audacious sniper duel in The Hurt Locker, and shows a film-maker in complete control of the medium.


‘Zero Dark Thirty’ is, by its nature, narrow of focus. This means you really get into the mind-set of Maya, and her mono-maniacal dedication to the hunt. We only get two sequences where Maya isn’t central to things. Both are impressive action set pieces.

This narrow focus also leaves the film open to accusations of being one-eyed in its depiction of Moslems and Pakistanis. Much like another film based on true story where US troops are involved a helicopter crash, which also has a three word title taken from US army terminology: ‘Black Hawk Down’. Just like that Ridley Scott movie (again made with US Military assistance), in ‘Zero Dark Thirty’, we never get to know any non-American characters. However, Bigelow and Boal’s treatment of the story eschews the jingoism and simple ‘Cowboys and Indians’ set up of ‘Black Hawk Down’. Jessica Chastain’s Maya is isolated from the local community, and we see the cost she pays for that.


For me, Maya's utter monomania is key to a true understanding of the film. She deliberately isolates herself from anything that isn't the hunt. To be fair, when she tries to be a human being, she's punished for it; her friendship with the character of Jennifer Ehle is punished two-fold, in a pair of bomb attacks that have a dreadful cost. You could, I guess, make the point that she is on her own, solitary jihad–a cause to which she dedicates her life. Perhaps that's too neat a comparison, although the fact that you rarely see her in an environment where she isn't working speaks volumes.


As the links in the chain from the 9/11 attacks – here presented surprisingly coyly and far less imaginatively than in, say, Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11; a further refutation of the ‘gung-ho’ criticism – to the location of bin Laden are painstakingly forged, a decade passes. Though signposted by captioned re-creations of further real-life al-Quaida attacks, this progression is less clearly marked in Maya. Her evolution from distasteful observer of torture to active encourager seems rushed and unconvincing. Her tears in the final shot read less as a sign of regret at her transformation than a straightforward show of relief at a tough job completed. Much more could have been done with a character that frustratingly remains a cypher, a simple touchstone for the audience, and so disappointingly the petite, flame-haired Chastain is accordingly underserved by writer and director alike. She delivers a performance that can only be described as adequate for the role as seen.


I disagree, Chris. ZD30 is Chastain's movie, and I think she clearly shows the awful cost that gets paid when you devote everything to a cause. From the very beginning, she's on point and utterly ready to take anything the job throws at her. Her first day on the job has her witnessing, in fact complicit, in detainee torture. I read her final shedding of tears as regret that the job has been done, terror that she needs to find a new purpose in life. Alone, as the loading bay doors of the transport close on her, we see the saddest of creatures–a warrior who has erased her role in an unending war.


Much like its uber-professional heroine, this is an easier film to admire than it is to love. It starts very dry, its faux-documentary style mixing time-marking reconstructions of real terrorist events with actual news footage. This is an approach reminiscent of the Gillo Pontecorvo 1966 classic ‘Battle of Algiers’. Then it gradually gets more Hollywood movie-like as it goes on, bringing in more of Alexandre Desplat’s score, and familiar faces in cameo roles: Mark Strong! James Gandolfini! John Barrowman! Until it emerges, like a moth from chrysalis as a fully formed thriller in the vein of ‘Zodiac’; another story about a similarly obsessed protagonist on a personal crusade to find one man.


Bigelow’s selection of actors in their thirties and forties to play the SEAL team principals – Joel Edgerton is 43, Chris Pratt 33 – is a small but telling example of her skill; as Mark Bowden wrote in Black Hawk Down, US special forces soldiers are generally older than their regular army comrades. And with nothing of the true nature of the so-called ‘Silent Hawk’ stealth helicopters used on the raid having yet reached the public domain beyond the now-famous image of a tail boom section from the aircraft that had to be destroyed, production designer Jeremy Hindle and art director Todd Cherniawsky have crafted a compelling representation from a mix of real-world sources. Like angular tadpoles machined from graphite, the helicopters are realised in the physical and digital realms and add a further layer of (un)reality to this most daring of missions.

With the helicopters’ flight through the mountains to their target, Fraser’s cinematography comes into its own. Night-time is rendered an extraordinary, dusty grey, quite unlike the deep blues commonly used, and is far more arresting as a result.

As the team hits the ground in Abbottabad the score fades to silence and the penetration of the apparently dormant compound and its house begins. The SEALs, with their bug-eyed night-vision goggles and advanced weaponry, move from space to space in an extended, real-time sequence that exerts tremendous tension, not least through its presentation as a kind of shared sensory deprivation experience. With no music, minimal dialogue and a limited field of vision that mimics the ghostly green of the soldiers’ goggles, we hear and see what the SEALs hear and see: the concussion of breaching charges, flurries of hot orange sparks, the sickly yellow beams of infra-red laser pointers, the soft sound of suppressed gunshots, the suffocating grey of that night.

That the act leading to the final outcome almost passes un-noticed and is eventually shown with subtlety and restraint is admirable. Throughout this battle histrionics are abandoned in favour of precision, caution and professionalism on behalf of both the soldiers and the film-makers; Bigelow permits her heroes and heroines only the briefest of celebrations.


The final section of the film is, of course, a masterpiece of action cinema, but it shook me a little. As if the shock of the appearance of John Barrowman as a gruff Beltway commando wasn't enough, all of a sudden we're in Area 51 with a bunch of futuristically-dressed black ops and a brace of stealth copters. It's a setup that's straight out of Aliens, complete with mystery female operative briefing the guys on the most secret of secret missions. Saddle up, ladies. For a moment, I wondered if they'd switched reels on me.

If you wanted to be unfair, you might say that for that sequence Bigelow had cribbed a mood-board from her ex-hubby. I don't, so I won't. But James Cameron's expropriation of razor-edge miltech for his Colonial Marines has bled into action cinema narrative to such an extent that night-vision and queerly silenced full-auto fire feel science-fictional even when they're quite clearly not. Somehow, it feels less real than it should. Maya's dream brought to grainy, flicker-green light.

This shift from tense espionage to balls-out action switches in and out with oiled precision. This is as it should be. The closing 45 minutes of the movie is the bit that a lot of viewers have been waiting for, so it's appropriate that there's a solid, firm gear change. The shift back out is equally smooth–perhaps a little too smooth. It takes you a moment after the film to refocus, to understand that the clean military action included the killing of women and unarmed civilians. Not so clean after all. There's a reason that Bigelow keeps the celebrations to a low glow–there's been too much suffering since 2001 for Osama's death to be any more than a Pyrric victory. Revenge won't unkill any of the victims in Towers One and Two, or the victims of 7/7.


From its opening card to its end frame “Zero Dark Thirty” is a slippery tale, jealously keeping certain information from the audience, blurring fact and fiction and keeping its true motivations shadowy. So – much like a real CIA operative then. And yet… this film has stayed with me and for one reason: Maya.

It’s an impressive performance by Jessica Chastain, and one deserving of all the award nominations bestowed on it. But there’s something about the character of Maya that’s fascinating. Set up as a kind of modern day Sir Galahad – she’s even taken a vow of chastity, dismissing sex with the words: “I’m not one of those girls that f*ck. It’s unbecoming.” On the search for her Holy Grail (Bin Laden), she forswears all personal relationships in favour of the quest.

‘Zero Dark Thirty’ also casts Maya as the vanguard of a new generation of intelligence agents replacing the old Cold Warriors. The main difference between the two generations is clear: belief. Maya is a believer. Tellingly, she accuses Jennifer Ehle’s Jessica of “Pre-9/11 thinking.” Near the end, James Gandolfini’s bigwig asks for the odds that the compound they’ve found is Bin Laden’s bolt-hole. Only Maya is unequivocal. This is because Maya is a fundamentalist. That’s the subversive moral of this story. ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ says the only way to catch a fundamentalist is to send a fundamentalist.

But Maya can also be read as a portrait of the USA post-9/11. She dedicated everything to getting Bin Laden. Then she got him. But she is left isolated and friendless, with the question of transport plane pilot ringing in her ears: “Where do you want to go?” That’s the haunting question we’re left with. What now for the USA?


Ultimately Zero Dark Thirty is an extremely competent drama with a handful of stand-out scenes, but nothing more. It does not promote torture and does not seek to present itself as something it is not. These are virtues in context of the subject, but it suffers from a lead role that is disappointingly pedestrian and supporting performances that are arguably too naturalistic for conventional recognition. There are many good points but no cogent argument for greatness.


Zero Dark Thirty treads the same dirty road as The Hurt Locker, and considers the same subject: 21st century warfare and the dreadful effects it has on the men and women who fight it. By conflating this with the story of the hunt for one of the world's most hated men, though, some of that focus and passion that made the earlier film so memorable is, bizarrely, lost. There's more at stake, and you can't blame Katherine Bigelow and Mark Boal for walking that road with a little more care. ZD30 is a less angry and more thoughtful film than its predecessor. That's understandable, but as Chris notes waaaay back at the beginning of this piece, the film-makers tread so carefully that any lasting footprints become hard to see. Jessica Chastain's muted, realistic performance is a polarising force here. Maya is so central to the film that if you don't buy into her, you don't buy into the film as a whole.

I did. Zero Dark Thirty is an astonishing technical achievement, with a remarkable final action sequence. It also has a handle on the awful attrition grinding away at modern warriors, in a battlefield without traditional boundaries, and a war with no clear goals or end. If Maya seems less than human, then that is because 9/11 and the events thereafter have stripped her humanity away.



AA078XHT_13: —-Transcript ends—-


[FURTHER INTEL: Chris Rogers is a writer on visual culture, architecture and the fascinating intersections between them. You can find him on his very well-respected website, and we heartily recommend you do so. Excuses And Half Truths is both humbled and honoured that he chose to join Clive and I for this epic dissection of Zero Dark Thirty. We hope to be able to invite him back soon.]








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One thought on “Grail Quest: The Hunt For Meaning And Osama Bin Laden in “Zero Dark Thirty””

  1. My main problem ZDT was the lack of antagonist in the movie… the nearest we have to one, if varied, is different members of the secret service who block Maya’s way… but this is a film about the hunt and assassination of Bin Laden… yet that real antagonist never features. Which I believe was an artistic decision because they thought it would take you out of the movie. This renders the film a list of recent tragic events – a potted history if you like – from 9/11 to his killing. However, there’s no critical reasoning within that narrative. ZDT just promotes the opinion that 7/7, the hotel bombings etc were as a result of Bin Laden evading capture like he’s a Bond villain orchestrating evil acts … also did you realise the finale was 36 minutes long… the real raid was only 46 mins end to end… and for this entire time Maya disappears from our screens… an interesting movie that I wanted to like by ended up getting more annoyed about it the more I think about it.

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