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Zero Dark ThirtySome Ramblings - Zero Dark Thirty (2012)
By Srinivas Kanchibhotla

The towers fell. Politicians of all reputes sharpened their swords, tongues and rhetoric. Someone is surely going to pay for this...with interest, proclaimed the anguished men in power. Soon, dots were connected and the trail stopped at the deep caverns where Bin Laden had made his home in Afghanistan. Minutes details like the exile guerrilla exulting at the sight of the towers reducing to rubble, trickled into public consciousness thanks to carefully planted stories and planned leaks by the military intelligence, to incense the already fuming public further. The then President assumed the role and the tone of the Sheriff of the Old West, declaring Bin Laden as the Enemy of the State, made him a Clear and Present Danger and vowed to blow him out of his foxhole capturing him dead or alive. The entire nation was humming for blood as they readied themselves for the shock and awe campaign to be unleashed on an uncivilized part of the world thousands of miles away from their comfortable homes. Cable channels covered the 'event' live with jingioistic logos and thumping theme music.

First, the air power rained from the sky levelling mountains and rugged terrains making way for the ground assault. Lean and Mean was how the Secretary of Defense wanted his ground force to be, with a simple mission objective - get in, get Laden, get out. Air power should lead the way while the ground forces should only supplement the former was the strategy of the suits, who had never set foot in battlefields before, much against the protests, complaints and resentmets of the military brass. The American people cannot stomach the sight of their beloved sons and daughters coming back in body bags, and so keep their role to a minimum, was the faulty foundation over which the failed military campaign was built upon. Days rolled into weeks, months and years. Bin Laden, in the meantime, planned and launched couple more attacks on the homeland, with his foot soldiers trying to blow up planes with bombs hidden in shoes and underwear. Just to needle a little bit more, he released tapes - audio and video - taunting and mocking the supposedly mightiest military force that the world has ever seen, for not having the tact nor the heart to dig their heels in for the long haul. Strategies failed and determinations waned. And the telling statement from the same President a few years into the campaign said it all, that killing Bin Laden was no longer the focal point in their war on terror. Laden, who was once the very face of terror was now a mere titular head, just a symbolic representative. In the war between the resolve of the terrorists and the resources of the freedom spreaders, resolve trounced resources like the US has experienced many times before in Vietnam, Somalia and the Balkans. And the greatest hunt (probably after the one for Carlos, 'The Jackal') to nab the most dangerous man alive almost ended in a damp squib. Until....

The Hellfire missiles launched from the unmanned drones from miles up in the sky hone in their targets with pinpoint precision. The Cruise missiles launched from the naval ships stationed in the Persian Gulf travel hundreds of miles over uneven terrain and strike the caves and mountains with a fair degree of accuracy. The battle tanks, the Apache helicopters, the attacks strategies, the battle plans, the supply lines.... all are incumbent upon the key ingredient without which wars are never won - ground intelligence. Men and women in the field, keeping their ears closer to the ground, establishing the right contacts, developing the key relationships, coaxing, cajoling and bribing them for vital information relating to strategic targets, make the difference between wins and losses in wars on foreign turfs, involving ground invasions. And 'Zero Dark Thirty', a careful and a detailed production of this slow, tired, misguided, mislead, yet determined efforts of the men and women in casual wear putting together mismatched pieces of the puzzle to finally zero in on Public Enemy No. 1 on that dark night in Abbottabad, Pakistan, just shows hoe ineffective the war machinery is against a shifting and a slippery enemy, and how slow but surely the same enemies could be tracked back to their foxholes following the tiny and insignificant bread crumbs they invariably drop along. The movie put together from the headlines, news briefs and even confidential information from intelligence gatherings, plays out like a 'thriller documentary', whose ending is already known, yet the events built up to it still shrouded in secrecy, mystery and intrigue.

There is a wonderful sequence in the same makers' (Writer and Director) previous venture 'The Hurt Locker' about a sniper's patient wait for his target to walk into the cross hairs of his rifle, replete with the eye fatigue of looking through the scope endlessly, the neck cramps from having to hold on to the same position where even millimeters matter, and finally the body that screams for the little stretching from remaining in the same stationary position. The scene plays out over a literal 5-6 minutes of screen time, covering for an afternoon to evening in real time, where what appears like very little action happening is in fact a painstaking build up to a swift and a ruthless denouement. 'Zero Dark Thirty' is that sequence for the first 2/3rds of the movie, while the last portion is the raid on Laden's compound running for the same duration as the actual event itself. Terror network metastasizing on sleeper cells can only be taken down by breaking down the communication mechanism between the cells. Cut the chord between the splinter groups and the rudderless organization comes crashing down on its own. This is a desk job, this a peoples person's job. This needs the use of the eyes and ears than binoculars and night visions. And 'Zero Dark Thirty' is that procedural of those professionals.

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This article is written by Srinivas Kanchibhotla
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