Zero Dark Thirty
Distributor: Columbia Pictures
Released: December 19. 2012
Sara Michelle Fetters
Engrossing Zero Dark Thirty an Explosive Procedural
Zero Dark Thirty, written and directed by The Hurt Locker Academy Award winners Mark Boal and Kathryn Bigelow, chronicles the decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden. It is seen through the eyes of a CIA analyst, Maya (Jessica Chastain), a woman so driven and focused she becomes the catalyst for crafting together the evidence that led SEAL Team Six to raid a not-so-secluded compound in Pakistan where they found, and killed, their man. It is a movie that paints a journalistic picture of the events while also being a pulse-pounding thriller of the first degree. In short, it is one of the great cinematic procedurals ever made. More than that, it is without question 2012ís best picture and guaranteed to be a movie we are going to be discussing, studying and debating for generations to come.
Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty © Sony Pictures
The film is a step-by-step examination of the investigative process it took on the part of a committed group of analysts to discover bin Ladenís whereabouts. Like All the Presidentís Men or Zodiac before it, Bigelow and Boal have gone into exhaustive detail to make sure the yarn theyíre spinning feels as authentic and as believable as possible. I felt dropped right into the center of the proceedings, found myself sitting precariously on top of Mayaís svelte, if resolute, shoulders. We are in this movie, start to finish, and throughout it all I was glued to my seat in a way in profound disbelief and fascination I can barely describe.
The amount of research that went into all of this is apparent from the start. Working from declassified files, public records and interviews with those in the know, Boal uses his journalistic experience to craft a screenplay that oozes in legitimacy. At the same time, he remembers to tell a compelling story, filling the screen with multidimensional characters and emotions that are as compelling as they are intimate, everything revolving around Maya Ė herself based on a very real woman who supposedly did much of what is depicted here Ė and her growing obsession with the man responsible for the most devastating terrorist attack in United States history.
With all this being the case, Bigelow and Boal must have realized early on that for authenticityís sake they were going to have to travel into some pretty uncomforting corners. Knowing this the pair drop us, and Maya, into an interrogation between senior CIA analyst Dan (Jason Clarke) and an Al Qaeda operative (A Prophetís Reda Kateb) where so-called Ďenhanced interrogationí techniques, including water boarding, are in fact used.
The movie makes no judgment about the use of these techniques. It does not claim they were essential in the gaining of intelligence information. It does not say they were not. It does not claim that the name of the currier, a central figure who would ultimately lead to bin Ladenís whereabouts, was first heard from his mouth.
What this sequence does is show the importance of this moment for Maya, how viewing this interrogation changes her and gets her to rethink what the CIA is doing. It leads her to ponder other ways to gain information, convincing Dan that subterfuge with the prisoner might lead to his dealing with them. She starts to come up with new ways of following leads and is the first one to put the pieces together regarding the courier, going through countless hours of interrogation and interview footage slowly realizing that this man might be the key to bin Laden when all those around her think sheís probably wasting her time.
This whole conceit will not sit well with many. The filmmakersí refusal to pass judgment on this CIA practice, to show it for what it was and nothing more, it will unsettle and discomfort even the most hardened of viewers. Itís a despicable sequence, one that made me want to scream and yell at the screen for it to stop. At the same time, its importance for Maya, for her transformation, for her evolution as a character and as a driven detective determined to get her man, that is equally undeniable, the moral quagmire Bigelow and Boal present every bit as important now as it ever was before the unveiling of bin Ladenís whereabouts.
Thing is, while the focus on the film seems to have dwelled so much on this one aspect, the torture portion of the film takes up actually very little of its almost three-hour running time. The filmmakers are every bit as obsessive and as observant about every other factor in this hunt as they are this one, showing successes and failures with the same unflinching eye. More, the ultimate raid is devastatingly effective, a clinical descent into controlled chaos thatís brutally forthright in its depiction of the SEAL teamís effective dismantling of bin Ladenís compound. There is no fanfare, not blaring trumpets, no uninhibited emotion, just the controlled firing of the military unitís weaponry as they make their way clinically floor-by-floor before ultimately firing a bullet into the head of their intended target.
Chastain is remarkable. As great as she was in her Oscar-nominated turn in The Help, as outstanding as she was in Take Shelter, The Tree of Life, Lawless, The Debt, Coriolanus or Texas Killing Fields, if you can believe it the young actress is even better here. Maya is unsentimentally structured, doesnít come with acres of backstory and isnít an easy person to read. At the same time, Chastain makes her a nuanced, multi-dimensional force of nature, reveling in her interiors while also presenting a steely exterior faÁade allowing her to do her job better than just about everyone else. Her passions become palpable, her reasons for going on undeniable, making the revelation that her eventual success could inadvertently transform her into an empty shell with nothing new to fight for all the more upsetting.
But letís not forget about Clarke. His Dan is not what he appears to be, not by any stretch of the imagination, and as things progress itís clear he is just as complicated a figure as any the film has to offer. Who he is at the beginning of the movie is not the same man that he becomes by the end of it, the way he is forced, by profession, by orders, by foresight, by own volition, and catching up with all the nuances that make up his personality isnít as easy as one might first assume.
SEAL Team Six begins their raid in Zero Dark Thirty © Sony Pictures
There is plenty more that can be written about Zero Dark Thirty, so named for the military slang for 12:30 a.m., the time the SEAL assault on bin Ladenís Abbottabad compound began, and Iím sure as time goes by many will be doing just that. As a movie, however, as a singular entertainment dissecting the decade-long manhunt for the most wanted international terrorist the world has known, no stone goes unturned, no angle remains unexplored, and by the time the attack commences my pulse was racing to such a degree I was worried I might be having a heart attack. All that needs to be said is that Bigelowís movie is a triumph, and seeing it should be the first priority of every potential viewer no matter what their political persuasion.
Film Rating: ÍÍÍÍ (out of 4)