“I’m The Motherf%cker Who Found Him” & Other Musings from Zero Dark Thirty
Sometime between 9:00am and 10:00am September 11th, 2001, I was just returning from my 8th grade gym class when my math teacher Mr. Bronsil sat our class down (this was when I was attending a Montessori school aka lots of sitting on the ground) and looked out over a group of 30+ 13 and 14 year olds without any idea of what to say.
He looked out at a group of children who had never known the horrors of WWII or Vietnam and for the most part had lived their lives being peacefully middle class in southern Ohio. He knew looking out at that group of children that each of them would remember this moment for the rest of their lives, much like he did when we landed on the moon or when JFK was shot. However, he knew what had to be done and sparred no details as he described to us what had transpired in the preceding hour while we were busy playing dodge ball in the gym down the hall.
He told us that The World Trade Center in New York City had been attacked by a group of religious extremists from the Middle East that went by the name “Al Qaeda” and that they were led by a man who every person of our generation has come to associate with the words, “evil,” ”devil,” and “filth.”
For months after, news about the destruction, the pain, and the lives taken on that day made front-page news and as a nation we grieved for the 3,000 Americans who were lost. Paranoia, depression, and overwhelming pessimism ran high, but we, as a nation, slowly picked ourselves up and moved on, forgetting the sensation of feeling completely susceptible to the evils that our nation had never previously known on our own soil.
The first five minutes of Zero Dark Thirty, which feature nothing more than a black screen and the hollowed cries from victims and announcements from anchors coving the attacks from more than 11 years ago, take you back to the exact moment in time when vulnerability and fear gripped our daily lives and refused to let go. The sound clip that sets the tone for the entire movie, however, involves a conversation between a woman trapped on one of the top floors of the first tower that was hit and a 911 operator. As the operator attempts to calm the woman down, she becomes even more frantic and begins repeating the words, “I’m going to die,” over and over again until the line goes silent and the operator is left in shock. Cue scene.
Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty documents the decade-long manhunt for Osama Bin Laden (UBL) after the September 11th attacks through the eyes of Maya, a CIA wunderkind who goes to every imaginable length to gather intel on America’s number one target. By this point you’ve probably heard about how the US government believes the torture scenes in ZDT are not depicted accurately or how the CIA claims to not have given access to screenwriter Mark Boal or how Jessica Chastain’s “Maya” is essentially the same character as Claire Danes’ Carrie Mathison on Homeland.
However, what you might now know is how the movie came to be and, as Matt so eloquently put it, “got made so mother fuckin’ fast.” According to reports, in May of 2011, Boal and Bigelow had written more than 2/3 of a script about a failed mission to catch UBL in the mountains on Afghanistan (a point which is mentioned in passing by Andy Dwyer going full-on Bert Macklin) when they heard that UBL had been killed. With that in mind, they knew they had to alter their movie, so rather than focusing on one year of the hunt, they instead decided to incorporate the entire 10-year manhunt into the film and named it after the time at which Operation Geronimo was carried out (12:30pm).
Although every second of the 160 minute long movie is exceptional, you can definitely see the short comings of cramming 10 years worth of intelligence work into that time frame. In order to keep pace, most of the events within the movie revolve around various terrorist attacks that occurred during the 10 year hunt (including the bus that exploded in London, the Marriott Hotel that exploded in Islamabad, the botched suicide bombing in Times Square, and a suicide bombing at a US Army base in Afghanistan). Bigelow understands that we might grow comfortable with the uneasiness that comes with handling this subject matter and is able to keep everyone on their toes with each of the attacks, one after the other.
The first two hours of Zero Dark Thirty play out as a history lesson building up to the most intense and stressful 40 minutes of film I’ve possibly ever seen. Of course, going into ZDT you know how the story ends, but the way in which Bigelow films the climactic SEALs mission to kill UBL makes it feel so incredibly real that you almost expect something to go wrong or something unexpected to happen (and most likely you’ll have a burning desire to play Call of Duty as soon as you get home).
Zero Dark Thirty is, simply put, an incredible feat, the likes of which will (hopefully) never be needed again. Bigelow proves that she understands the emotions of warfare and need for bleakness (the hyped up torture scenes weren’t NEARLY as bad as advertised) to tell a story unlike anything else I’ve ever seen. I was blown away at how engulfed in the story I felt, which by the end you realize is more about Maya’s search for UBL rather than UBL himself, and how amazing this incredible cast was (including Coach Taylor, the aforementioned Andy Dwyer, Michael from Lost, Mark Duplass, Tony Soprano, Mark Strong (with hair), and a whole slew of other people who made you think, “Damn, how’d they get in this movie!?”).
On May 1st, 2011 I was living in Chicago and feeling pretty down on my life for the most part. It had been almost a year since I graduated college and I was broke, unemployed, and frankly feeling a bit hopeless. I remember getting on Twitter and seeing retweets from a bilingual computer programmer in Abbottabad tweeting about helicopters circling around his home and gun shots going off at a nearby compound and then the news came flying in. Soon after that, Obama addressed the nation and reported that Osama Bin Laden had been slain in Pakistan. Although in the weeks that followed I became rather disgusted with the idea of celebrating someone’s execution, I, much like millions of other Americans, did feel a slight sense of relief knowing that that motherfucker got what was coming to him and that America actually did something for once that they proclaimed they were going to do (not to mention the fact that Barry-O was a lock for a second term after the news came out (“Not bad.”)).
There’s a good chance we’ll never know the real names of the CIA operatives and soldiers who carried out this mission and instead we’ll spend hours hypothesizing about what they’re like or how they felt once their target was eliminated. We’ll want to know that they all finally got their first good nights’ sleep in 10 years and that they were all able to return to their normal lives in the US afterwards. But we know that’s not true and in the end they’ll be left thinking the same thing that each of us do, “where do you want to go?”