The controversy over this film is at Mach 5. But Scriptshadow doesn’t care about any of that nonsense. I just want to know if it’s a good screenplay!
Premise: A CIA agent who experiences countless failures in her search to find Bin Laden, finally becomes convinced she knows where he is. With her superiors doubtful, she must put everything on the line to finally take down the most wanted man in the world.
About: This Oscar-contender has been catching some flak lately as, according to the CIA, it doesn’t accurately depict how they found Bin Laden (something about how the CIA doesn’t use torture). The film is written and directed by the same team that made the Oscar best-picture winner The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal.
Writer: Mark Boal
Note: I watched this as a film but am critiquing its screenwriting elements.
If I’m being completely honest (and why wouldn’t I be), I kind of wanted to hate this movie. Let me tell you why, as I feel quite justified in my pre-hatred. Zero Dark 30 is one of those movies that tells you it’s an Oscar winner before you’ve even seen it. And I don’t like when marketers tell me what to think of a movie. I like to decide things for myself. But hey, that’s the name of the game, right? If you don’t have a big hook or a big actor, something to market your movie around, the only way to make money is to convince everyone your movie is award-worthy. So I get that. But what bothered me was that Zero Dark 30 started promoting itself as an Oscar winner before they even shot the thing! Aren’t we getting a bit presumptuous here? Is this what Oscar jockeying has become? We’re now promoting our movies as Oscar-winners before anyone turns on the camera? Ick. I’m not a fan.
The opening scene didn’t do much to quell my animosity. We watch on uncomfortably as CIA agents torture a Middle Eastern man via water-boarding. Ugh, they’re now stooping to this level? Throwing in a controversial topical torture technique that dominated the press for a year? They might as well have shot the scene on the Oscar stage. By the way, I have to get this off my chest. I’m sure experiencing water-boarding is really terrible. But it sure doesn’t LOOK terrible. You’re basically pouring water on a guy’s face. I can think of 10,000 torture techniques that look a hell of a lot worse than that, so whenever I see someone water-boarded in a film, it doesn’t have any effect on me.
Whoa whoa whoa. What’s with the grump stump Carsonigin? It’s Christmas Eve! You’re supposed to be jolly n stuff! You’re supposed to be caroling or baking cookies for Santa that somehow disappear before they’re ever put over the chimney.
Okay, fair enough. The truth is, Zero Dark 30 is a good movie. In fact, it WILL probably win the Oscar. Mostly because it’s one of those movies people feel like they’re supposed to vote for. But also because it has the best third act of any film this year. And as I like to say, if you give them a great ending, it can make up for a lot of problems earlier in the screenplay. And there were some problems here. Let’s explore what they are after the synopsis.
Zero Dark 30’s main character is a young innocent-looking fair-skinned CIA agent named Maya. Maya’s recently been assigned to the Middle East to help interrogate those who had ties to 9/11. She gets a wake-up call when she realizes these men are being tortured for their information. But instead of cowering in the corner like a little girl, she puts her big girls’ shoes on and tells the terrorists they better get with the program and start spitting out names because that’s the only way they’re getting their lives back. Yes, Maya is a hardass.
Maya’s research eventually leads her to a courier who she believes might have ties to Bin Laden. Unfortunately, nailing down this courier is next to impossible. He never uses the same routes twice. His cell phone use is erratic at best. And no matter how hard the U.S. tries, they can’t seem to figure out the naming system here in the Middle East. Whenever they think they’ve got someone, it turns out to be someone else.
Years pass and Maya’s superiors encourage her to focus on other potential terrorist attacks, but she can’t get her mind off that damn courier, the one she’s sure has something to do with Bin Laden. So she does some more digging and eventually finds the REAL courier, the one she thought she had all along but who, it turns out, was someone else. She traces this man back to a compound in Pakistan. She tells her bosses about her theory, but the compound is so well-designed, it’s impossible to know who, for sure, is in there. To Maya, it’s obvious, but you have to understand, the CIA gets hundreds of these tips a day. Who’s to say it isn’t a drug dealer living there? There’s just no way to know.
But Maya won’t stop. She demands her superiors keep looking. And tells them to have THEIR superiors keep looking. And after what seems like forever, even though there’s only a 50% chance that Bin Laden is actually living here, they get the call from upstairs that the president has okay’d a raid. Maya must now leave the final piece of the puzzle up to Seal Team 6, who are less than thrilled to be going on yet another [sure to be] bogus chupacabra hunt. What they don’t realize is that this is the real deal. This is the moment that will make them famous.
I was discussing this movie with a friend and I was going on one of my typical rants about how there “wasn’t enough urgency in the movie.” And I had a good point (if I don’t say so myself). I mean we start the story 10 years before the killing of Bin Laden and there are just all these scenes through the years of people talking in rooms about finding terrorists who might lead them to other terrorists who might lead them to someone who knows someone who might know Bin Laden.
While I’m sure if you broke these down scene by scene, you’d be able to make a case that they were all PUSHING THE STORY FORWARD (remember – every scene in your script must push the story forward!) but I couldn’t help but feel like we could’ve consolidated and streamlined the hunt more. For example, there was a cool scene near the middle of the movie where Maya and her co-worker are chatting about boys at an Afghan Hotel when a bomb BLOWS UP. Fun scene. But afterwards all I could think was, “Ummm, was that scene really necessary?”
But here’s what my friend said. She said, “True, but starting with this girl 10 years before she finds Bin Laden makes us care a lot more about her and her goal when she finally gets close to finding him.” And she was right. As we watch Maya go year after year chasing red herrings and losing friends and being blocked by red tape, we become heavily invested in her journey in a way that wouldn’t have been possible had we started the story 2 weeks before the raid.
In this case, urgency would’ve actually worked AGAINST our story. And that got me thinking. As you all know, I’m obsessed with GSU – that stories work best when they have a GOAL, high STAKES, and URGENCY. However, if you were only able to use two of these and one had to go, I’ve realized that urgency is the easiest one to drop. That’s because if the goal is REALLY BIG and the stakes are REALLY HIGH, the audience will want to stick around whether there’s a time limit on the characters’ actions or not.
And what do you know? Zero Dark 30 fits the bill perfectly. The goal is about as big as you can get! Find and kill Bin Laden! And the stakes are immense as well! If you don’t, he keeps sending out orders and more and more people get killed. Add the personal stakes are high as well (Maya dedicating a decade of her life to this hunt). It’s no wonder we’re willing to stumble through ten years to finally get to this ending.
Another thing I found interesting was that this is being marketed as this super serious big important movie. Yet they use one of the oldest tricks in the book to get you onboard – the underdog. Audiences LOVE underdogs. They will follow underdogs anywhere because who doesn’t want to see the little guy who nobody gave a shot to score the big touchdown in the end? Maya is the ultimate underdog. She’s a woman in a male-driven business. Nobody gives her a chance. Nobody believes her. So at its heart, this is really about a character overcoming adversity and disbelief to win in the end. That’s a universal story that anybody will love.
My biggest problem with Zero Dark 30, however, was that there were sooooo many scenes with guys in rooms talking. Granted there was usually a lot of tension and conflict in those scenes, I suspect these scenes are what made the slow parts of this screenplay feel so slow. And while Maya’s underdog status made her easy to root for, there was something cold about her character. I’m not sure if that was Jesscia C’s performance or if that’s how it was written but I suspect it was how it was written because there’s very little if any background into who Maya is outside of the agency – what brought her here, why she’s so obsessed with capturing Bin Laden. I mean I knew more about Claire Danes’ character after 20 minutes of the Homeland pilot than I did about Maya in this entire movie. The only reason you should have a 2 and a half hour movie is if you’re doing some major character exploration, and strangely enough, only the minimum was done here.
But despite its flaws, it all came together in the end. So much had been built up before going into this raid, (not to mention our own REAL-LIFE feelings about Bin Laden), that the compound sequence was gripping. I particularly loved how messy it was. I guess I thought that the SEAL team just barged in there, ran upstairs, and shot Bin Laden. But there was so much more uncertainty here, with a lot of unknown variables chiming in: The downed helicopter. Compound doors not opening. Hundreds of neighbors moving in. The threat of the Pakistanis finding out and sending their military over. You really felt that if they didn’t find Bin Laden right away, they’d have to leave and squander the best opportunity they’d ever have at getting him.
I’ll probably never watch Zero Dark 30 again. It’s not a movie you can pop in on a Sunday afternoon and just enjoy. It’s deep, it’s dark, it’s intense, and it’s serious. You feel at times like you’re obligated to watch it as opposed to volunteering your time to watch it. But that ending. Oh that ending. It makes all the warts go away. And it’ll probably win the film an Oscar.
[ ] I want to return this Christmas present
[ ] This Christmas present wasn’t for me
[xx] good enough to re-gift
[ ] just what I wanted
[ ] best gift ever!
What I learned: At some point in your story, there needs to be urgency. I know I just said urgency isn’t as important as goals or stakes, and that may be true. But you cannot go an entire screenplay without eventually adding urgency to the mix. In Zero Dark 30, this happens as soon as Maya positively identifies Bin Laden’s compound. Every day they don’t act is a day he could possibly move. And we feel that tension (as a good ticking time bomb will do) as days turn into weeks turn into months. We’re sitting there going, “Jesus! You’re losing what may be your only shot!” So avoid urgency if you dare (I still think you should incorporate it if possible), but if you don’t use it to frame your story, you’ll almost certainly need it for the final third of your script.