Zero Dark Thirty is the most recent film on the list, released in January 2013. Originally a story about the failure to find Osama Bin Laden, it was hastily re-written after he was killed in May 2011, providing a dramatic climax to a complex and politically charged chapter of US history.
Jessica Chastain plays Maya, a dogged CIA operative whose sole focus over the course of ten years is to find (and, ultimately, kill) Bin Laden. From overseeing the torture of Al-Qaeda operatives to tracking mobile phone leads in Pakistan, she is unswerving in her dedication. The loss of a friend and colleague in a botched operation adds a personal motivation to her obsession and she goes out on a limb to prove that her path is the right one, and she’ll be damned if anyone tries to stand in her way. When the leads point to a fortified house in Abbottabad, the stage is set for the final assault.
The film stoked some controversy on release, mostly due to the depiction of torture as a means to gain information from detainees. It wasn’t so much the graphic nature of the scenes, rather, the suggestion that solid intelligence derived from illegal methods was a determining factor in the success of the mission, and therefore justifiable. The film weighs up both arguments; in an early instance they fail to stop a terrorist attack in Saudi Arabia as the information gleaned proves unreliable. But the techniques ultimately serve to unearth the central line of enquiry: identifying and locating the courier who will lead them directly to Bin Laden, lending credence to critics of the film’s ambiguous moral message.
The film is very clinical in its approach: there is no room for small talk, idle chit chat, or indeed, much of a social life. The small flashes of relaxation and downtime are swiftly interrupted by a blast of reality. Almost immediately after Maya joins her friend Jessica for a meal, the restaurant is rocked by a car bomb. Jessica bakes a cake shortly before an arranged meeting goes disastrously wrong. Dan, the CIA interrogator, feeds his ice cream to some monkeys. A few scenes later he tells Maya they’ve been killed by the troops. It’s almost as if the characters are being punished for displaying these brief moments of humanity in amongst the brutality they both mete out and endure. Sentiment has no place in this world.
Maya’s role is both central to, and removed from, the action. She drives the narrative with her single-minded obsession, but when the goal is finally achieved, she is unable to share in the cathartic celebrations. While the troops whoop and high-five each other, she stands alone by the corpse, seemingly unemotional. The final scene echoes The Searchers, as she is framed in the opening of a plane’s cargo hold, the only passenger in an otherwise empty carrier. Returning to an uncertain future, she dwarfed by both the mechanism of war, and the vast expanse she is leaving behind.