Director Kathryn Bigelow. (Photo credit: David Shankbone)
When I watched the get-bin-Laden movie Zero Dark Thirty at a theater just outside Washington D.C., I was struck by how silent the audience was from beginning to end with almost no reaction to the climatic killing of the terrorist leader or to the film's lame stabs at humor.
For instance, the screenwriters apparently thought they had crafted a funny line when the CIA officer in charge of torture says he's returning to a desk job at CIA headquarters because he'd grown tired of seeing so many "naked men," i.e., the detainees he'd been torturing. I heard one person in the audience emit an uncomfortable laugh.
Clearly, the strength of the movie was its documentary-style presentation of the climactic night-time assault, though the film failed to explain how meticulously Seal Team Six had prepared for -- indeed, rehearsed -- the attack.
Apparently, for dramatic effect, director Kathryn Bigelow ignored that part of the story so she could pretend that her heroine, the obsessed CIA analyst Maya, was getting her CIA superior -- and the White House -- to act by using a magic marker to scribble the number of days she'd been waiting on the window to his office.
However, when the raid finally commences, it's clear that many of those days had been devoted to careful preparation. Everyone in the commando unit knew precisely where they were going, what to expect, and how to proceed. What was remarkable about Bigelow's depiction of the raid was its businesslike precision.
But my takeaway from that segment was that the commandos of Seal Team Six could best be described as methodical killers, moving through the compound and systematically killing each man they encountered, whether armed or not. After shooting a target, they then fired two more shots into the motionless body to make sure the person was dead.
While the scenes in the darkened house were nerve-wracking -- even though the outcome was already known -- the American attackers came across as less heroic than professional. You're left with a sense that these warriors had been on many similar missions with similar deadly results.
As shown in the movie, the commandos displayed few emotions even when they killed bin Laden. Afterwards, they simply continue with business as usual.
They corral bin Laden's terrified children and the compound's women; they rush through their work removing computer hard drives and other useful intelligence; they extract bin Laden's corpse in a body bag; they fend off curious neighbors; they demolish a damaged helicopter; and they fly back to their base in Afghanistan where they sort out the captured intelligence and put bin Laden's body on a gurney.
Then, for dramatic effect, director Bigelow has Maya serve as the CIA expert who conclusively identifies bin Laden's body before she heads off to a military cargo plane where she is the only passenger for a return trip to the United States -- and where she breaks down in tears.
Assessing the Raid
Despite criticism of the movie for its disputed suggestion that torture elicited important clues in the hunt for bin Laden, Bigelow deserves some credit for not transforming the raid into a moment of melodramatic catharsis.
The scene of the U.S. commandos shooting bin Laden in the head when he opens his bedroom door and then pumping a couple of extra shots into his collapsed body -- while bin Laden's children watch -- is not the sort of theatrical climax that one might have expected from a John Wayne or Bruce Willis movie.
However the audience felt about the necessity of killing bin Laden -- as revenge for his mass killing of innocents or as prevention against him plotting more terrorist mayhem -- there had to be mixed emotions at his denouement. There also should have been reflection on the various American crimes that have been committed in the years after 9/11, including the ugly torture of detainees and the bloody invasion of Iraq, which had nothing to do with 9/11.
Which brings me to my biggest criticism of Bigelow for this movie and for her Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker, a drama about U.S. demolition experts defusing "improvised explosive devices" in Iraq. Both movies treat the inhabitants of the countries mostly as scenery and provide almost no historical context for the events that Bigelow portrays.
In The Hurt Locker, you're presented with a framework in which U.S. military personnel somehow find themselves in Iraq trying to save both Americans and Iraqis from bombs planted by other Iraqis, presumably because those Iraqis must be pathological "bad guys." The American bomb crews sacrifice greatly for the benefit of all, doing their best to frustrate these evil-doers.
Bigelow treats the Iraqis as either props for her drama or as villains, i.e., crazy terrorists. If you didn't know the history, you'd be lost regarding the background of an unprovoked U.S. invasion of Iraq and a military occupation that many Iraqis were resisting.