You can get a lot of mileage out of “based on a true story” filmmaking, and if there was one concern going into Zero Dark Thirty, it is that it would milk that for all it’s worth. It’s made worse when you consider that the story of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden is relatively hot off the press. To make a successful and controversial movie out of this subject matter is child’s play, but to make a genuinely excellent film is an entirely different undertaking.
At first it seems like Zero Dark Thirty will be one of those opportunistic examples of filmmaking. The opening moments and subsequent sequences of torture are grisly and intense, but border on exploitative. Only a redheaded woman in the background suggests that there is more to this story. As much as this is the tale of Bin Laden’s manhunt, it’s also the tale of Maya (Jessica Chastain), a CIA officer intent on capturing him.
True story or not, at the end of the day a movie is valued in its story, performances, and presentation. In that respect, Zero Dark Thirty is phenomenal. It may be a two and a half hour build-up to an event we already read in the news, but this film is so gripping that I forgot I already knew the ending.
Zero Dark Thirty fires on all cylinders from beginning to end, never missing a beat. Even the soundtrack is great, offering up more than the forgettable background noise we tend to get in these kinds of films.
It’s rare that I’m so thoroughly lost in a film, but when the credits rolled they came with a jolt. “Oh yeah, real life…I forgot about that.” It’s that kind of movie.
And yet as intoxicating as the performances and pacing and cinematography are, you can’t help but think of the true events this film is based on. It connects events you surely heard in the news, but probably didn’t string along in the thread the way this plot does. It begs questions, while simultaneously asking you to trust in its accuracy. It embellishes, while also attempting to tell the truth. Like any “based on a true story” narrative it has been put under a microscope and the results muddy the waters.
I have to wonder how much success this story would have had if it wasn’t based on infamous events. There’s no way to know for sure, but my feeling is that Zero Dark Thirty, truth removed, is a masterpiece of filmmaking. It’s only in that truth that things get more complicated.