Much like Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker, this is a film that, at least in part, seems to aim to tell the “human” story – or the “ground truth” – of a particular conflict the US is involved in. In this case though, it’s obvious something of a little more import.
Anyway, it reminds me a lot of Blackhawk Down, a film similarly unconcerned with the “why” and pretty much solely concerned with the “how.” In that, it’s pretty successful: it’s dramatic, tense, thrilling, and you absolutely have to watch the whole thing, even though you know how it’s going to end.
People have criticized the dramatization in part because of the “Agent against the system” aspect of the film. This is not criticism of Chastain, who, as has been reported, is excellent. Rather, it seems silly to invent this character who is “in the room” for everything important. But we forget that this is pretty much what we do with artistic license and these sorts of historical reenactments. A more daring filmmaker may indeed have dispensed with a main character, but this is a film made for popular consumption. I put it to you that a film about the hunt for Osama Bin Laden that wasn’t driven by one character would be incomprehensible to the vast majority of people. This story is episodic by nature and, for most people, the only way to fight that is to have a character or characters linking those episodes. Hence Maya.
There has also been criticism about the role torture did or did not play – people think the filmmakers exaggerated its role. That’s interesting because, whether or not it’s true in this particular case, the US has tortured thousands of people throughout this past decade and a half. I think at some level we have to include torture scenes in order to be intellectually responsible. I didn’t get the sense that “torture led directly to the death of UBL” as some people have alleged about this movie, but I can see why you might come away with this impression.
But all of this criticism misses the point. The problem with this film, and with The Hurt Locker and with Blackhawk Down – all well made films, some better than others – is that it is essentially a “Noble Grunt” film – in this case a “Noble Grunt” spy film. The Noble Grunt film is all about how the individual(s) means well despite both the enemy (its humanity or lack of humanity) and the bureaucracy that put the person in this position. Maya is far more Gung Ho than most grunts in these types of war films, but that doesn’t make the film around her any less deliberately ignorant of the big picture.
Yes, this is a very well done fictionalized depiction of the pursuit and assassination of the man who caused 9/11, but it never ever asks any serious questions about why any of this is happening. Basically, the film is premised on this: Bin Laden bombed the US, therefore we must kill film. Okay, fair enough. Everyone wants revenge. But what about the rest of it? Why does Al Qaeda exist? Why does it persist? Do you really want me to believe that one day Muslims in the Middle East just decided to hate America for no reason? Really?
A more interesting film might have examined a different story. Before the SEAL team is sent in to investigate the lead, one of the SEALs says to Maya that they pursued a lead back in 2007 and it wasn’t him. Well, what I would have liked to see is a similarly assured version of those events: an analyst who was so damn sure he was in that location, only to find out she was wrong. Certainly that would be a more interesting and more provocative movie.