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‘Zero Dark Thirty’

Trading terrorism for torture in search of bin Laden

by Giovanni Fazio

“Money shot” is a term that originally came from the pornographic-movie industry, referring to, ahem, a male actor fulfilling his contractual obligations. The term has since entered the parlance of our times (as The Dude from “The Big Lebowski” would say) to refer to any spectacular movie shot that saw a lot of the budget poured into it: Think of the football-stadium scene in “The Dark Knight Rises,” or the tsunami in “Hereafter.”

The money shot in “Zero Dark Thirty” comes, appropriately enough, at the film’s climax, and it’s literally a shot, as the Navy SEALs storm Osama bin Laden’s vacation home in Pakistan and put a bullet through his head. (Actually, it’s a double-tap.) Slice, dice and analyze this movie however you want, that is the promise the filmmakers dangle before potential punters: a 9/11 revenge flick with the added satisfaction of it being true.

Without this visceral pull, Kathryn Bigelow’s latest would be a much harder sell. It’s basically an info-heavy police procedural flick following the decade-long hunt for bin Laden, more akin to the cerebral, obsessive investigations of “Zodiac” than a thrilling adrenaline-ride like Bigelow’s last “war on terror” movie, 2009′s “The Hurt Locker.” It’s history on the fly, hitting our screens barely 18 months after the event itself, but it seems a bit of a rushed job.

“Zero Dark Thirty” begins by setting the context, just a black screen over which plays audio from the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001: frantic 911 responders, confused air-traffic controllers and desperate cellphone calls from the Twin Towers. Bigelow has spoken of not wanting to further revisit the already overused imagery of that day, but the effect is if anything more chilling.

The film jumps directly from that to two years later, where an al-Qaida operative held in a CIA prison in Saudi Arabia is being brutally interrogated. Well, let’s not gild the lily: He’s being tortured, and it ain’t pretty. We meet our heroine, Maya (Jessica Chastain), as she watches her bearded colleague Dan (Jason Clarke) work him over; “When you lie to me, I hurt you!” he bellows repeatedly. The film implies Maya has got a pair, since she’s not squeamish about this work in the least.

The torture, and attempts to trick the detainees into revealing info, make up a good part of the film until it’s 2009, Abu Ghraib has forced people to clean up their act, and the intelligence community has largely given up on finding old bin Laden in favor of just getting enough intelligence to prevent the next terrorist attack (and al-Qaida terrorist attacks on London and Saudi Arabia keep reminding us why they feel this way).

Chastain gets so many “good wife” sort of roles, it’s a revelation to see the steely determination she displays here, but ultimately the screenplay lets her down: There is nothing to her character other than this single-minded obsession with bin Laden. She’s a deskbound avenging angel, haranguing her superiors endlessly, but in this age of cover-your-ass and I’ll-be-gone, you’ll-be-gone, it’s nothing short of mythic to see a mid-level employee standing up for what she knows is right.

While “Zero Dark Thirty” insists on its basis in fact, the filmmakers swamp the first 30 minutes with so many unfamiliar names, places and connections that many viewers will wind up failing the quiz. As journalist Peter Bergen (author of “Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for bin Laden”) has pointed out, “tens of millions of people are going to see this film and a lot of them are gonna walk out of theater saying coercive interrogation somehow led to bin Laden,” despite the fact that neither history nor the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence support this conclusion.

For a view of how the intelligence community works, this is a fascinating document — as troubling as it is awe-inspiring — of the lengths to which the U.S. went in order to achieve rough justice. One example is a scene where an agent visits the bin Laden compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, disguised as a polio campaign worker; now we know why all those polio NGO employees have been gunned down by the Taliban in Pakistan these past few months.

In the end, there’s the money shot, and “Zero Dark Thirty” becomes a paean to ubiquitous American power projection, the idea that the American Empire can zap anyone, anywhere, anytime. No matter how justified in this case, no matter how necessary — if even just symbolically — there is still something terrifying about this idea.

Kathryn Bigelow and Jessica Chastain are interviewed on this issue’s Weekend Scene Cover.