Veterans’ Perspective: Does ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ Add Up?

When “Zero Dark Thirty” made its way to the big screen last month I was cautiously optimistic about how accurately the story would be told. Because I have no inside knowledge of what really happened, I can only assume that there will always be tons of unanswered questions regarding the demise of Osama Bin Laden.

That said, I could only judge the film’s context on what information it gave me and correlate on what I already knew from the media and the book, “No Easy Day” by Mark Owen.

So what should we think about “Zero Dark Thirty?” It’s complicated.

Zero Dark Thirty Review from Veterans

“Zero Dark Thirty” did a great job of telling one of the most intriguing stories of our time.

What Actually Happened (Sort Of)

I thought the film did a great job of telling one the most intriguing stories of our time. Beginning with a black screen and recorded messages from September 11, “Zero Dark Thirty” thrust me back into the emotional roller coaster I felt after 9/11 and never let go.

The first half of the movie tells the meticulous and often frustrating story of the CIA’s hunt for Bin Laden, complete with the politicking that goes on beyond closed doors and interrogation sheds where torture is introduced as a means to acquire information. Many consider the torture scenes to be an over-the-top dramatization of what really happened and that the film condones such violence. I believe what is shown— waterboarding and forms of humiliation— only exhibits the “enhanced interrogation techniques,” while still remaining ambivalent to the actions themselves.

In the second half, we are given a very detailed scene of the Navy Seals’ path to Abbottabad, Pakistan. The story takes a more aggressive approach, complete with very low-altitude Nap-of-the-Earth (NOE) helicopter flights, advanced military equipment, and of course, the death of the “tall man” himself, Bin Laden.

Entertainment Value

“Zero Dark Thirty” can’t begin to address the entire complex tale of the CIA and military paths used to find and dispatch Osama Bin Laden, the ins and outs of  the interrogation process or the stories of the people involved.

But that’s not to say I wasn’t entertained.

I went into the movie expecting another “shoot’em up,” but I got the exact opposite. The suspense offered from the plot surrounding, mostly, a single CIA agent made me cheer for her each step of the way. I found myself championing her cause and her theories because she was always unwavering in her decision making. The Navy SEALs were also pretty awesome when they finally put all the “talk” into action.

That said, it’s just a movie. It’s not a historical reenactment. Take it for what it’s worth.

Zero Dark Thirty Veteran Perspective

Newman (left), Moore and Pharr discuss the film “Zero Dark Thirty.”

Other Voices

David Moore (Air Force veteran)

I was kept in suspense by the plot of the singular CIA agent hunting down a specific al Qaeda member that led to the discovery of Osama Bin Laden’s location. One should never go into a movie like this expecting to get the whole truth or an accurate depiction of events, but a film like this can give us at least a peek into what it was like for the CIA and the SEALs to track down and kill Bin Laden.

In the end, I was left with a film that neither celebrated nor denigrated the hunt and killing of Bin Laden. I, along with the main character, Maya, was left with the sober fact that the man who was responsible for the deaths of thousands Americans is now dead.

Jonathan Pharr (Marine Corps veteran)

I enjoyed “Zero Dark Thirty.” However, I can understand why some people think that the film was released too soon after the killing of Bin Laden. I thought the most attention-grabbing aspect of the film was the intense focus that it placed on the topic of torture. In my opinion, the film depicts torture as an effective and necessary form of interrogation, and, without the use of it, we may not have been able to take out Bin Laden.

The main problem in this film, aside from the SEALs (actors) flagging each other with loaded weapons, was the attitude of CIA personnel toward the SEAL members. The main character, Maya, refers to SEAL members as “canaries.” I felt like this undermined the extensive training and dedication to duty that the real Navy SEALs possess. Additionally, these service members take an oath to protect Americans, not to do the dirty work for some CIA agent as the film depicts.

Jerod Barlow (Civilian)

I was a bit surprised how in-depth the movie was in regards to the years leading up to Bin Laden’s death. It was enlightening to see the narrative progress through the course of an entire decade. As a citizen, it’s easy to forget the upfront work it takes to make an event like the assassination of Bin Laden possible.

SEALs have been given most of the glory, but I think it’s important to remember those who dedicate years of their lives to intelligence gathering and tactical planning, too. Still, some parts of the plot were suspect. It’s hard to determine which portions of the film are based on facts and what parts were pieced together in Hollywood for entertainment purposes. That being said, the film was a thought-provoking piece.

Hear more about what Newman, Moore and Pharr thought of the movie:

Photo courtesy The U.S. Army