When you have seen every World War II film worth watching and it is Memorial Day, you start trying to find different titles. More importantly to my financial bottom line, I was sticking to whatever I could find on my various streaming services. In skimming through them before, I had glanced at, and skipped over, Zero Dark Thirty (2012) a number of times. I saw it in the movie theaters, and had forgotten most of the content. In viewing it recently, I now remember why. It features a whole lot of torture, and it makes for some gruesome, uncomfortable scenes. There is a theory that says something along the lines that in order catch a monster, you must become a monster. Those of us who are old enough remember all too well the devastating attacks on September 11th, 2001. If this is the case, then you will also recall the swell of national sentiment against Osama bin Laden. He became public enemy number one, and it seemed like there were those who would stop at nothing to get him. Today’s film is the not completely historically accurate story of one such person.
The first thing you hear in Zero Dark Thirty are recordings of phone calls and other material from the September 11thattacks. The first thing you see is a dank, dim holding cell with a man strung up by his arms from the ceiling being tortured for information that could lead to Osama bin Laden. The primary person doing the torturing is Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) intelligence officer Dan Fuller (Jason Clarke). The person undergoing the questioning is proving resistant, and one of the others in the room, at first wearing a ski mask, winces slightly with each blow. This is CIA intelligence analyst Maya Harris (Jessica Chastain). She is the new face for the agency in Pakistan, and she is there to do one thing: find Osama bin Laden. Her hard line on this matter tends to rub people the wrong way. Many of her colleagues are dismissive of her thinking, believing that the money they offer for information will trump the ideological line that has been proven to stand up in the face of torture. Her theory is that there are people close to the leader of Al Qaeda, and that if they can be found through questioning every possible lead and surveillance, they will eventually find their target. Her efforts produce a name: Abu Ahmed (Tushar Mehra). For a time, this person proves elusive. Nonetheless, she tracks down each clue, including ones that, unfortunately, get her co-workers killed. At one point, she is shown a video of an interrogation that suggests the person that she is looking for is dead. Yet, just when she is about to give up hope, she receives a file that leads her to believe that Abu Ahmed is still out there somewhere. Calling in a favor with Dan, who is now working at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, she discovers that this Abu Ahmed is a courier working in and around Pakistan and carrying messages for bin Laden. She is able to get the heightened surveillance she needs from the station chief, Joseph Bradley (Kyle Chandler), and they begin closing the net. Unfortunately, before her efforts can completely come to fruition, she is attacked leaving her home in Islamabad, forcing her to return to the United States. Still, what she set in motion eventually points the way to a small compound on the outskirts of the Pakistani city of Abbottabad, near the tribal lands of northern Afghanistan. Given everything else they know about bin Laden, and his conspicuous lack of a presence elsewhere, Maya is sure that this is where the Al Qaeda boss is hiding. Her certainty is not enough, though. While they intently watch the compound, marking every individual they can discern inside, she continues to berate her new boss at Langley, George Panetta (Mark Strong), for not moving fast enough on this information. They have identified each person inside, but one. This mystery somebody takes pains to not be identified, even going outside only under the cover of plants that obscure his features. For Maya, this is further proof that this is bin Laden because it shows somebody using tradecraft to avoid detection. Eventually, it comes down to a meeting with CIA director Leon Panetta (James Gandolfini). He wants to know how certain everyone is that this is bin Laden they have been monitoring. Most of the people in the room are a little above average in their assessment, except for Maya, who is confident this is the target of their years long manhunt. Thus, the order is given to assemble a Navy Sea, Air, and Land (SEAL) team for the purpose of assaulting the compound. They are given special helicopters, taken to a base in Afghanistan near Pakistan, and carry out their mission. In the process, they lose when of their vehicles, but manage to kill bin Laden, coming away with a huge amount of data before they leave. For Maya, who had gone with the team to the base to monitor their attack from there, it is the culmination of years of dedication. Fittingly, the film closes with her getting on a plane by herself, the pilot asking her where she wanted to go.
As the door closes on the C-130 Maya boards at the end of Zero Dark Thirty, there is a close-up on her face just as she is beginning to cry. It is a sign of relief after accomplishing something on which she had focused for the better part of a decade. The one thing I appreciate about it as a Catholic is that her tears do not seem to be ones of triumph, but more like, “Thank God that is over.” I say this because in getting to her goal she appears to compromise her morals. This is evident from the first scene. It will probably not come as a shock to you that Christianity does not condone torture, though it is shocking the number of people who profess that faith and yet are comfortable doing this to those they call their “enemies.” At the same time, there are those out there who would kill a person for confessing to be a Christian. Terrorism is real. Further, we know that extremist groups have martyred Christians in a perversion of Islam. We hear of these stories, and many ask themselves what they should do. Nobody wants to live in a world where we could be targeted simply for professing that Jesus is God, or that Muhammad was a prophet. Those who take the steps they see fit to stop the other side far too often resort to the same tactics as their enemies to achieve peace. It was Caesar who said that he brings peace by making war, not Jesus. Our Lord and Savior, instead, laid down like a lamb before its shearers when persecuted. This is not easy. It is also hard to imagine learning what Maya does by going about it in this manner. At the same time, I would point out that little of the information she obtains is gained through waterboarding or other barbaric practices.
There are moments when Zero Dark Thirty is almost unwatchable, particularly during the torture scenes. Further, I could not help but wonder what the children inside bin Laden’s compound thought after witnessing SEALs attack their home and kill their elders. The hope is that they grow up to understand that there is a cycle of violence that leads to these outcomes, and hopefully they take steps to break it. Otherwise, this will never end, unfortunately. I pray that it does.