Zero Dark Thirty: The Girl Who Got bin Laden

In this powerhouse, true-life thriller, the team behind The Hurt Locker details the decadelong hunt for al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden

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Jonathan Olley / Columbia Pictures

In a “black site” at an undisclosed location, a CIA officer is interrogating a man suspected of having information on the courier of Osama bin Laden. The suspect, Ammar (Reda Kateb), believes he can withstand the waterboarding, the dog collar, the sleep and food deprivation, the heavy metal music  that hammers his warehouse cell 24 hours a day; he boldly asserts that “jihad will go on for a hundred years.” But as his captor, Dan (Jason Clarke), patiently explains, “In the end, bro, everybody breaks. It’s biology.” Ammar turns to Dan’s silent partner, Maya (Jessica Chastain), and cries, “Your friend is an animal. Please help me.” The ordeal continues. That’s diplomacy, by any means necessary.

The 9/11 attacks instantly created a new world disorder, changing the face of the enemy from cranky tyrants to a stateless ascetic with the dream of crippling infidel America. Al-Qaeda’s coup also rendered the old book of counterintelligence ethics obsolete. Bribes and blackmail were still permitted, but no gentlemen or ladies needed enlist in the war on terror. The stakes were too high, as Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal, the director and writer of The Hurt Locker, document in their powerhouse thriller Zero Dark Thirty. “I want targets!” shouts George (Mark Strong), a high-level CIA official, to his agents in the field. “Do your f—in’ job. Bring me people to kill.” At this time, Leon Panetta (James Gandolfini) is the CIA director, and Maya has been working for years to locate Mr. Big — to bring in the head of Osama bin Laden.

(MORE: TIME’s Review of The Hurt Locker)

Surrounded by tattooed enforcers like Dan and upper-management toughies like George, Maya at first seems as pale and petite as a naked mole rat. When Dan is transferred back home and Maya assumes control of the interrogations, her boss warns her, “You don’t want to be the last one holding the dog collar when the oversight committee comes.” But Maya has developed copper callouses and steely reserve, especially after some of her closest colleagues were blown to bits in the 2009 suicide bombing at the Camp Chapman base in Afghanistan, which killed seven CIA agents. Maya believes she was spared so she could finish the job. “I’m gonna smoke everybody involved in this op,” she says of the Camp Chapman attack. “And then I’m gonna kill bin Laden.”

The making of Zero Dark Thirty, which opens on Dec. 19 in a few theaters before expanding in January, was an operation nearly as complex and secretive as the one that took down bin Laden. Some industry analysts, inferring that the movie was all about the May 1, 2011, SEAL Team 6 raid that killed the al-Qaeda leader, wondered why a woman had the leading role. (The raid consumes just the final fifth of the movie.) The clandestine nature of the enterprise also stoked sepulchral suspicions, both on the right and the center-left, that ZDT would be a mash note to Barack Obama, who gave the go-ahead for the raid, while George W. Bush proclaimed in 2004 that “I really just don’t spend that much time on [bin Laden]” and Mitt Romney in 2007 said it was “not worth moving heaven and earth spending billions of dollars just trying to catch one person.”

(PHOTOS: Navy SEALs in Action)

Before the movie had begun shooting, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd asserted that “the White House has outsourced the job of manning up the President’s image to Hollywood.” Peter King, the House Republican who chairs the Homeland Security Committee, promised an investigation of any aid the Obama Administration might have afforded Boal; and the Special Operations OPSEC Education Fund, a political action group stocked with Tea Party Express members and ex-Bush officials involved in the Iraq war, produced a YouTube video charging the film with “dishonorable disclosures” — as if the Defense Department didn’t pour millions into supplying hardware and expertise to Hollywood movies (Transformers, Act of Valor and dozens of others) and government insiders didn’t routinely spill secrets to journalists like Bob Woodward. And Dowd.

For the record, Bigelow received no help from the U.S. government — no lending of aircraft or weaponry — in the depiction of the Abbottabad, Pakistan, raid or of any other military activity. And we would hope that Boal, like any investigative reporter, received knowledgeable help in getting his facts straight. Further, this is in no way a political film; it carries neither a torch for Obama (who is seen only for seconds, promising in a 2008 news clip to end waterboarding) nor the agitated imprint of an Oliver Stone film. Essentially, it’s a police procedural on a grand scale.

(PHOTOS: Special Ops: A Photo History)

First and last, Zero Dark Thirty is a movie, and a damned fine one. Like Argo — which, with all due respect to director Ben Affleck and the film’s many admirers, ZDT blows out of the water — it dramatizes a true-life international adventure with CIA agents as the heroes. (And it takes fewer fictional liberties with the source material than Affleck did.) In the tradition of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, Boal tracked down the particulars of a sensational exploit and, skipping the “nonfiction novel” stage, created an original screenplay that provides a streamlined timeline of the hunt for bin Laden. The word docudrama doesn’t hint at Boal’s achievement. This is movie journalism that snaps and stings, that purifies a decade’s clamor and clutter into narrative clarity, with a salutary kick.

(MORE: TIME’s Review of Argo)

It’s a subject perfect for Bigelow. She has wrangled complex stories about cops (Blue Steel), undercover FBI agents (Point Break) and nuclear-submarine commanders (K19: The Widowmaker) and in the process proved herself to be one of cinema’s most inventive visual strategists and field commanders — and, in a nice way, Hollywood’s ballsiest director. Perched between the serene classicism of old Hollywood and the jittery crazy-cam of the Bourne era, Bigelow’s style is terse and assured. There’s no question which side she’s on, but she allows virtually all the characters, American and Middle Eastern, their moments of reason or sympathy. In this case she is neither prosecutor nor judge — simply the sharpest, most attentive member of the jury.

In The Hurt Locker, which won Oscars for Best Director and Original Screenplay, Bigelow and Boal viewed the war on terror in a microcosm, through the eyes of a trio of bomb defusers in Iraq. ZDT is a macrocosm. Instead of a Baghdad street where an IED could explode underfoot, Maya and her colleagues tread a minefield that stretches from Kabul to Times Square. Though it focuses on the determination and resilience of Maya (who is based on a real CIA tracker), the film is a giant fresco, an imposing series of surgical strikes set in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Poland and the U.S. For a throbbing 2 hours and 40 minutes, ZDT moves through enemy territory with the speed, weight, brains and grace of a Pro Bowl NFL linebacker; it’s the Lawrence Taylor of war-ops movies.

(LIST: 10 Greatest Movies of the Millennium, Thus Far: The Hurt Locker, More)

With the dense dialogue spread across more than 100 speaking roles, the supporting actors could be mere information carriers, but many make excellent use of their limited screen time: Clarke as the hard-case interrogator with a Ph.D., Kateb as his victim-informer, Kyle Chandler as Maya’s suave, cautious station boss, Jennifer Ehle as a warm, seen-it-all field agent and Edgar Ramirez as an operative who tracks bin Laden on an edgy ride through Islamabad. Chastain takes a while to grow into Maya’s skin, but her tentativeness in the early scenes may be an accurate depiction of a young woman just out of college, enduring the growing pains of a difficult matriculation in a killer job.

As a bright young woman driven to bring down an al-Qaeda terrorist, Maya shares aspects of Claire Danes’ Carrie Mathison in the Showtime series Homeland, but she lacks Carrie’s defining neuroses — and much other personal biography. What are Maya’s political beliefs? Who are her family and friends back home? Does she have a sex life? Doesn’t matter: she is her job. In a way, Maya is the CIA equivalent of Bigelow, a strong woman who has mastered a man’s game.

(MORE: Kathryn Bigelow Profile: The Front Runner)

At the end, the woman who finds bin Laden also finds an end to her sacred obsession. And eight years to the day after Bush prematurely announced it, a U.S. official has earned the right to proclaim, “Mission accomplished.” So too, with this splendid sortie into cinematic reportage, can Kathryn Bigelow.

MORE: Navy Reprimands SEALs Who Spilled Secrets for Video Game

244 comments
cp4abOlishm3nt
cp4abOlishm3nt

One of the favorite films of the year. The problem with this film is that there are too much critiques and criticisms. And most of these come from the fact that everyone (especially the politicians and NGOs) wants to juggle and argue that the movie slanted towards the argument for torture. And because of these controversies, it attracts the attention of instead earning a well produced accolade - to an accolade laced with insinuations (1) about obtaining (undisclosed) materials on producing the movie; (2) about making graphical torture scenes to sensitize audiences; (3) about producing a movie that encourages pre-Obama terror tactics; etc. Whatever, it is, it has generated an effect to this movie and somehow many in Hollywood do not wish to underline its success - not like The Hurtlocker. Whatever, it is, this film is really is original in its writing, research, direction and production. That success is because this film recognizes the intelligence, perseverance and the determination of a woman, Maya. This movie is not about Seal Team Six or about the CIA. I would say that this movie is almost similar to Argo (the other acclaimed movie for this year) but the workings are entirely different. Argo is based on gut, creativity and intelligence. ZD30 is fight on and believe. The torture scenes are nothing during the pre-Abu Ghraib incident and its only a mere tactic during those days when analysts and interrogators were required to come out with answers. The ones that torture were also tired because day-in and day-out, you use dog collars, humiliate detainees, put them in the box, etc., etc. But the intel was still zero and because nobody actually bothered to find out and sieve through a pile of collated sources until one fine day someone said look maybe we ought to look at these. Perhaps women are suited for this job because it requires perseverance and detail to understand and read reports between the lines; cross out the "T"s and dots all the "I"s. Men are perhaps better at certain precepts like for example, security detail and surveillance. Torture definitely did not finalize the identities and it was only a mere name that was lost because the actual identity was never known at all. The next question is will we ever find Ayman al-Zawahiri?

gautam231185
gautam231185

Zero Dark Thirty, while it provides dramatic thrills in abundance, is also about a woman's will and her strength of character in pursuing a target which begins as her job, but ends up as the sole purpose of her life. Relentless and unflinching, Jessica Chastain embodies a woman named Maya who inspite of operating in a men-dominated world of secret agents - with some of them carrying egos -, never gives up on her singular motive. Kathryn Bigelow, who also functions in a male-centric universe of cinema [especially Direction] might very well be the alter ego of Maya, - brave, unwavering, intelligent and above all, spearheading a project [infact two, if you also consider The Hurt Locker] which is about/involving men, with stupendous results.

http://www.cinemaconfessions.com/2013/01/movie-review-zero-dark-thirty.html

JudithRegan
JudithRegan

Great review  but isn't it time we dispensed with the sexist language? If anything this story and its director prove that. The "GIRL" who got Bin Laden is a WOMAN, not a girl. And Hollywood's "ballsiest" director is courageous and bold, not "ballsy". Listen up, boy.

sarahv3
sarahv3

The film was as thoughtful as any I've seen. The ending was as heart-stopping as it was knowable. The road to getting there was realized through unflinching storytelling, powerful imagery and sound mixing, and delicately layered acting.

roadlust
roadlust

You can't make a movie about torture without either implicitly endorsing it or condemning it.  Without the latter, you are engaging in the immoral propaganda support of War Crimes, and Crimes Against Humanity.  Making torture "entertainment" is exactly why we have kids running around shooting kids.  Nice job.

JackieMac
JackieMac

I'd like to say something non-political: this was not that great a movie. I have seen it. The part of the movie where the Seals go in etc. is really, really good. But the movie itself spends way too much time torturing (as in screen time) and Chastain is a weak link throughout. I found myself not caring at all about her. But this film has buzz and it will roll right on no matter what. I really, really liked The Hurt Locker. This was not that.

CultureInStereo
CultureInStereo

Based on the chain below, it appears that I'm one of the few who's been fortunate enough to see the movie. Let me tell you, TIME is not doing the film justice. It's an extraordinary piece of American history, produced to perfection. Bigelow's refusal to make typical "hollywood action flick" or "political war movie" is quite admirable. Instead, the movie holds the audience in the grip of it's intensity and refuses to let go. Frankly, it's an extraordinary accomplishment. Brava Ms. Bigelow. (PS - Opening credits are gut-wrenching and should not be missed.)

MohamedAlHashimi
MohamedAlHashimi

Al-Qaeda was created by United States with other governments to fight the Soviet Union. United States was supporting Saddam Hussein to fight Iran while Iran - Iraq War. 

j_bamford
j_bamford

"Point Break" a complex story? The author must be joking. But he's not. He's so committed to praising Bigelow that he offers us this bit of complete and utter nonsense. The notion that this new movie "isn't political" is utter nonsense as well. It's politics, like the over-rated and cliche-ridden "Hurt Locker," is uncritical praise and glowing admiration for US militarism. That's a definite politics. That the author thinks it's "not political" because it isn't pro- one of the two establishment political parties reveals only the limited perspective of the author.

j_bamford
j_bamford

"Point Break" a complex story? The author must be joking. But he's not.He's so committed to praising Bigelow that he offers us this bit ofcomplete and utter nonsense. The notion that this new movie "isn'tpolitical" is utter nonsense as well. It's politics, like the over-ratedand cliche-ridden "Hurt Locker," is uncritical praise and glowingadmiration for US militarism. That's a definite politics. That theauthor thinks it's "not political" because it isn't pro- one of the twoestablishment political parties reveals only the limited perspective ofthe author. 

AndreP.O.
AndreP.O.

"Barack Obama, who gave the go-ahead for the raid, while George W. Bush proclaimed in 2004 that “I really just don’t spend that much time on [bin Laden]” and Mitt Romney in 2007 said it was “not worth moving heaven and earth spending billions of dollars just trying to catch one person.”

Good God, that kind of drivel is why I don't subscribe any more! No, we could not find bin Laden for a long time, and Bush was trying to take focus off that fact. OBVIOUSLY, Bush would too have given the go-ahead and so would Romney. What Bush was saying is that killing bin laden would not end the problems caused by Islamism. And it obviously has not (Bengazi!)

In fact, the real act of courage for Obama would have been to live up to his ideals and spare the life of that "freedom fighter." BUT If the media had found out he'd had the chance but never took the shot, he would have been finished. So he simply piggy-back rode on the mechanisms put in motion by Bush. As he did in Burma too. And he takes credit without giving any to his predecessor.

Player
Player

Not as of yest, check your history book...

SteveMeadows
SteveMeadows

Propaganda for the masses: unsubstantiated and unverifiable fairy tails.

BTW, torture has always yielded false confessions and bad info. If you were accused of blasphemy or witchcraft in the middle ages, torture would make anyone confess.

DanielMunkelwitz
DanielMunkelwitz

She had no more to do with finding Bin Laden than the Gynecologist whom was a Plame Contact. Stop lying Bird brain. The Bristol Release was from a former US Army veteran and located that terrorist more than 1 year before the [SDS] raid. Stop funding your failed Khan Network initiative through the rewards program you bunch of hapless losers.

MichelOuellette
MichelOuellette

Just one clarification on Bush's 'Mission Accomplished'.  It was for the ship that had returned after ooperations in Iraq.  He was welcoming them back home.  The press has been totally dishonest about this facr for 8 years.

StandWithAZ
StandWithAZ

Was it really such an achievement to kill Osama Bin Laden? At the time of his death, he had been cut off from Al Queda by its founder and new leader, Ayman Al-Zawahiri for 3 years, and played ZERO role in the planning or funding of current terrorist activities. When they found him - thanks to a Pakistani M.D. who Obama left to rot in a Pakistani prison- Bin Laden was a sick old man watching pornos and munching Cheetos in a room that looked like a scene from "Hoarders: Buried Alive". THIS was a heroic hunt and kill? Hardly. More like tracking down and killing Grandpa in a nursing home.

TomSiebert
TomSiebert

Quick headsup that when I saw Richard Corliss wrote this, I refused to read it. I'll read nothing from this guy after he spoiled so much of "Dark Knight Rises." Irresponsible critic.

HotPotato
HotPotato

Listen to the left, pretending we are on different teams (Team Bush v Team Obama).  Give me a break.  Their guy had his silly speech how we aren't red/blue but united states.  Yet here they go, scorekeeping fools.   

Bin Laden was killing American's before Bush was even governor of Texas.  Bin Laden hit WTC/NYC in 1993 and we didn't even make it US policy to hunt Bin Laden.  4-5 more acts of war vs the US and STILL Clinton didn't make US policy to hunt Bin Laden.  It was Bush that made it US policy to hunt Bin Laden.  It was Bush that decimated the vast majority of Al Queda leadership, including capturing the mastermind of 911.  Many American's were killed on the hunt for Bin Laden, under Bush and under Obama.  We are on the same team.....stop with this ---only for political gain---scorekeeping.   You are a disgusting pig if you play that game.   

BuddyDallas
BuddyDallas

Who is to say that Bush wasn't going after Osama. maybe tahts want he wanted the public and the world to see, but in realtity he was.   yeah lets tell something that we'll looking for him.  Anybody knows anything about fugitives, they make mistakes, and you have to get them back in their world first to make those mistakes.  If a fugutive is on the run, he'll always be on the run if he knows that we'll activley looking for him..  But if thinks that we'll not, then thats when their gaurd comes down.  I'm not an expertise in any way.  I just know that our military is one of the best to make the enemy look the other way

BuddyDallas
BuddyDallas

Not gonna waiste my time or money for a liberal dirctor.   I lived it, I'll jsut use my immagianation on what went on, can't be only different then this pice of work,

BuddyDallas
BuddyDallas

Bill Clinton had 4 chances to kill Osama, anyh metion on this Mr. Reviewer, who ever you are.?  Freakin liberal writers, if you gonna put blaime put blaime on the whole poltical nit whits in washington.  Bush didn't want to go after Osama because then he would jsut become a marter, making things worse.   Obama was able to get Osama becuase of the entites put in place to get him.  Oh so now liberals are ok with waterboarding, only when it helps you politically right?

LaredoCollie
LaredoCollie

So this is what passes for a movie review these days?  I think I might actually be less informed about what is actually in the movie now than I was before reading this.  Thanks for that I guess.

Viv
Viv

Why is the headline "The Girl"...?  It should be "The Woman Who Got Bin Laden," especially since the CIA officer is in no way a girl.

lastrova
lastrova

@JudithRegan Isn't it time women stopped taking other women's exploits and accomplishments personally?  Did this writer call you a girl?  Is this about you?  Should I take your calling him a boy personally?  Grow up infant.

sarahv3
sarahv3

@roadlust And yet if  you've seen the film, it does neither. It's a fully realized story that depicts - without moral projection, sentimentality or political agenda - the complex realities of counterterrorism, the hunt for Osama bin Laden and yes, a detainee program that included inhumane interrogations that sometimes resulted in actionable intelligence. It did so thoughtfully, without endorsement or condemnation.

montez.bush
montez.bush

Um...it's a ten minute scene. The torture scene. That's not long...

MaureenOwen
MaureenOwen

@AndreP.O. > So he simply piggy-back rode on the mechanisms put in motion by Bush.

Your source for that is....?

I know, I know, Bush could have done it, but he was too busy...I dunno, what did he do.

Oh, and let's set another fact, straight: Obama did get credit to his predecessor. He didn't hand out laurel weathes, but he did reference the cumulative effort of the previous administration along with his, which is a hell of a lot more than Bush/Cheney would have done. They just out CIA agents to blow their cover and endanger their lives:

Over the last 10 years, thanks to the tireless and heroic work of our military and our counterterrorism professionals, we’ve made great strides in that effort. We’ve disrupted terrorist attacks and strengthened our homeland defense. In Afghanistan, we removed the Taliban government, which had given bin Laden and al Qaeda safe haven and support. And around the globe, this administration and the last worked with our friends and allies to capture or kill scores of al Qaeda terrorists, including several who were a part of the 9/11 plot." —President Obama, May 2, 2011

However, Republicans and Faux News were quick to say that Bush deserved all of the credit:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xhdm31CVimc

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YfgspheJNkY

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bRsdiBfvyuY

Facts stink, don't they?

HotPotato
HotPotato

@SteveMeadows To claim torture always yields bad info is just as silly to claim torture always works. 

RobertAllen
RobertAllen

@SteveMeadows Not always bad info .. in this case it yielded good info.   Kathryn was brave to go there (yes it takes bravery to tell the truth these days).  That does not justify torture as a policy of course .. it is also true that keeping your children in a closet will keep them safe .. so do not confuse effective with moral.  (By the way, most of those accused of blasphemy were actually blasphemous .. more than a few were also guilty of witchery, which was a capital offense in many places in those times - it may have been a 'victimless' crime, but today we have the lifetime punishment for the "crime" of even looking at a picture of a naked child .. something that was common and not considered illegal or immoral just 40 years ago - indeed in most of the world today people can still legally marry and bear children with any post-pubescent human, which can be as young as 9 or 10).  So before you cast stones at the "middle ages", look at your own place and time.

DanielMunkelwitz
DanielMunkelwitz

@StandWithAZ  What did the compromised Valerie Plame contact do again other than get a team killed that was on the way to extract him? Ambassador Wilson was assigned to Pakistan. This is all about funding the Former Khan Network initiative that Clinton unfunded.

RobertAllen
RobertAllen

@BuddyDallas I wouldn't call Kathryn Bigelow an "liberal" director.  Have you seen "The Loveless" or "Near Dark"?

cp4abOlishm3nt
cp4abOlishm3nt

@BuddyDallas 

Bill is a total liberal... He is only trying to scare some terrorists. Look at what he did in Waco, Mogadishu and Bosnia... Even though there were successes in Bosnia its all botched-up. 

Montage_Matt
Montage_Matt

@BuddyDallas You need to go back to school; not only to learn about politics but to learn how to spell and write sentences.

HotPotato
HotPotato

@BuddyDallas We have been hunting for and dying to get Bin Laden since 911.  It was only a matter of time. 

cp4abOlishm3nt
cp4abOlishm3nt

@Viv

The intel is basically from one hardworking girl who believes where Bin Laden was located. There is now a television series called Homeland and that persona that Claire Danes is trying to portray is this hardworking and one who truly believes where and who is the terrorist. There are not many of these people in this world - one that truly believes in the work he or she does.

AndreP.O.
AndreP.O.

@MaureenOwen @AndreP.O. Yes, yes, of course. He's a hawk now. He's the angel of Peace (Nobel!) AND a warrior. Boy, no other human could pull it off. Little inconvenient facts such as the role waterboarding played in leading to b.Ladin are simply omitted from the Leftist narrative. 

Are you saying that mentioning the "work of the military" of the "last 10 years" is the same as apologizing to Bush and his administration for vilifying them and threatening them with International Tribunal for doing what needed to be done? Gettoutahere!

Also,  I'll just say this to you: when "Faux News" is other conservative media disappear, you'll live in a Cuba or a Soviet Union. Now, I know you're too intellectually weak to understand that, but I hope you're remember my words some day.

drbillykidd
drbillykidd

Actually, the charge of being a witch was generally leveled against women whose husbands had died, leaving them with property and no adult male children. The church and the state would split the money raised from confiscating the property after the woman was burned at the stake.

carbona
carbona

@drbillykidd I agree it may have been for the greater good .. but as with today's 'takings' policies, that does not make it right.