With Zero Dark Thirty, director Kathryn Bigelow delivers what I believe to be a near-perfect effort, no less than the masterwork of a filmmaker as brilliant as she is topical. This film is every bit the powerhouse you’ve been led to believe – a tour de force attacking at an emotionally raw level, provoking an exposed nerve.
Something clear upon viewing: this is a dramatized portrayal of actual events. Anyone calling this film pro torture, or attempting to categorize it as the “torture film,” are either terribly misguided or purposefully taking a piss. ZDT focuses not on the “war on terror” so much as the wars that needed to be waged bureaucratically to bring Usama bin Laden to his end. Torture, unethical as you may think it, was one aspect of a multi-faceted endeavor. And when the Obama administration worked to move away from such vicious interrogation tactics, so too does Bigelow’s film.
Still, debating the veracity of the events depicted is moot. The filmmakers will tell you they came as close as the known facts would allow, the government will say otherwise while the truth is likely somewhere in between. Regardless, Bigelow’s telling a very human story: the crux in which ZDT‘s true successes are readily apparent. The director and her team allowed themselves room to dramatize; a luxury wisely used sparingly so as to maximize the rare gut punches as they hit. In embracing moderation, the film achieves its goals earnestly and completely.
Bigelow’s never at a loss for contextual framing, beginning the film with nothing but a black screen scored to the horrors of 9/11 dispatch recordings. It’s a jarring reminder of how we arrived at the Zero Dark Thirty mission, the ignition that put the wheels in motion. News footage throughout works to establish a timeline outside of the occasional title card – also helping inaugurate the transition between two administrations with differing ideologies regarding relaxed torture methods. Point being: you’re kept in this narrative beginning to end for some of the leanest 157 minutes ever devoted to film.
And what a narrative it is. I don’t know how much stock I put into the US’s bin Laden hunt becoming a one-woman show, though it was clearly marginalized from a political standpoint as our bloodlust gave way to apathy over the notion that our “war on terror” rendered him ineffective. But this flick, with barely an emotion at the surface, threatens to boil over with raw feeling in any given moment – a responsibility resting at bulk on the immense talents of Jessica Chastain in a career-defining turn.
Chastain earns whatever accolades she’s primed to receive as Maya, a CIA operative who’s made finding Bin Laden her sole purpose in life. She’s the cipher whose singular purpose weaves in and out of the manhunt to capture the most wanted man in the world. It’s a difficult, bare-bones role that suits the actor well. Chastain’s flesh and blood performance serves as one helluva weighty anchor, giving meaningful weight to a film that could’ve potentially buried itself as mundane procedural. But the magnitude of the affair is always readily apparent in Maya’s face as she suffers one setback after another on the way to achieving a potentially costly objective.
Widening the scope a bit, the acting talent on display in ZDT is an across the board success. Jason Clarke and Jennifer Ehle bring the dramatic goods as Maya’s CIA counterparts. Kyle Chandler delivers an unhinged effort as a Maya’s station chief while Mark Strong gives a transformative performance as an under- the-radar ally at Langley. From a strong James Gandolfini turn to a potentially star-making showing from Chris Pratt of all people, Bigelow assembled one of the finer ensembles of the past several years. Joel Edgerton and Frank Grillo, further rounding out the SEAL team at ground zero of the titular mission, further cement themselves as two of the most dependable go-tos on the scene today.
The mission. Pure business, professionally carried out, efficiently executed and all presented and staged in one of the most exhilarating military sequences ever committed to a lens. Bin Laden’s biggest protector might have been red tape, as Maya jumps through one hoop after another to get her intel heard. It’s such a struggle that, seeing the mission carried out with but a few hitches, serves as pure cinematic catharsis: the culmination of 11 years of sacrifice, self-doubt and deafening solitude.
And when one devotes so much time and energy to such a punishing crusade, success can never be anything other than deflating. Kathryn Bigelow supplants any grand moralizing (which would’ve been too easy) to bring the essence of UBL’s demise to the big screen. There’s no heavy-handedness here, just one human’s despairing attempt to fulfill their own sense of purpose before they self-destruct.
Purpose: a powerful thing, the sense of it can level buildings and bring humanity to its knees. But it also brings justice, a fleeting notion though it may be.
Beautifully rich, painstakingly weathered and exceptionally crafted, Zero Dark Thirty purposefully blurs the link between cinema and history in a wholly unique way. An artistically profound deconstruction of the human element; one lost to the rigors of chasing a ghost in wartime.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars