Zero Dark Thirty
Directed by: Kathryn Bigelow
Written by: Mark Boal
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Ehle, Harold Perrinau, Joel Edgerton, Mark Duplass and James Gandolfini
Kathryn Bigelow’s latest drama chronicling the (true?) story of the behind-the-scenes hunt for Osama bin Laden has amassed both critical accolades and controversy. Zero Dark Thirty is irrefutably a top-notch suspense drama, but your enjoyment of the film will lie greatly in your ability to mentally navigate through a quagmire of details, names and locations before the film’s third act climax. The necessity of so much information stuffed into a nearly three hour run time makes for a challenging viewing. Thirty is ambitious, if not ostentatious, but the ultimate payout is worth the frustration, and the final thirty minutes consists of one of the most suspenseful action sequences of 2012, all the more chilling because it is based on true events.
The opening scenes of Thirty jump right into the fray following the events of 9/11, as CIA operative Dan (Jason Clarke) interrogates a suspect using the controversial “by any means necessary” school of thought. Waterboarding, sleep deprivation and various other means of coercion are rotated on a daily basis, until his assigned subject starts to waver mentally and physically. A fresh-scrubbed CIA ingénue (Maya, played by Jessica Chastain) straight off the plane from DC looks on with horror, revulsion and sympathy while these events unfold.
A decade later, Maya’s soft façade has been peeled away by years of frustration and heartache, and she will become the one calling for questionable interrogation techniques. Though there are definite undertones of political posturing regarding the United States and its use of torture during the days after 9/11, that’s not what Thirty is really about. Those early scenes serve as a contrast as to how Maya’s character evolves and hardens over years of tracking down Osama bin Laden.
Maya’s obsessive drive leads to her crapshoot theory that the best way to find bin Laden is to actually track down his personal courier, who will inadvertently lead them to their number one target. This theory doesn’t sit well with the suits in Washington, but Maya sticks to her guns until bin Laden is ultimately killed in his compound in May of 2011. Over the course of ten years, numerous CIA operatives are killed in terrorist attacks around the globe, many of them Maya’s close friends, so the hunt becomes exponentially more personal for her.
Thirty is excruciatingly detailed. Doubtless you’ve read about some government leaders up in arms about the film because they feel Bigelow may have gotten too much inside information (then again, some of them are dismissing the film as pure rubbish). Like most things, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. While no one can disparage Bigelow for providing so many facts in her film, the second hour becomes hard to follow. Most of the names are foreign and similar sounding, many characters wear turbans, so they are hard to physically differentiate, and Bigelow rarely uses subtitles. The result is feeling a bit lost, but perhaps that is Bigelow’s intent. She threw us straight into the chaos of war in The Hurt Locker; here we can be tossed about in the frenzied urgency of trying to track down bin Laden.
Once you make it through that initial hump, the final third ratchets up the suspense as a team of special ops make their final descent into bin Laden’s reputed compound. Night vision goggles cast an eerie post-apocalyptic pall over the scenes, which could easily be mistaken for a sequence out of a horror film. They’re creepy as hell. Cinematographer Greig Fraser has dabbled in dark material before (Let Me In, Snow White and the Huntsman) and is well-suited to the material. Thankfully, Bigelow ends the movie after the mission. Most filmmakers would have tacked on an epilogue or provided real-life news footage, and Bigelow was wise not to do so. The film ends on a somber, abrupt note, as it should.
Chastain’s buzz (and Golden Globe win) is richly deserved. She is electrifying in the film. A fiery monologue delivered mid-film garnered cheers from my audience. Her mental and physical transformation during the course of the film is remarkable; by the end she is gaunt and hollow-eyed, exhausted by years of futile pursuit. Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Ehle, Harold Perrinau, Joel Edgerton and Mark Duplass are strong supporting players, and James Gandolfini provides some unexpected laughs as a crotchety CIA boss.
Overall, Bigelow has done a superb job of bringing a politically-charged story to the screen with as little fanfare as possible. You won’t be waving your flag as the credits roll, but you won’t be hanging your head in shame, either. It’s a fair presentation of a manhunt the likes of which we all hope will never transpire again. – Shannon