Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Runtime: 157 minutes
It's difficult to write about Kathryn Bigelow's Osama Bin Laden drama Zero Dark Thirty after what's happened over the past few weeks. With the reviews, the controversies, and the responses to said controversies, what on earth is left to say? Well, let's start with the basics: it's a really damn impressive piece of film making that stands tall in a year filled with diverse narratives.
If you've missed any coverage of the film whatsoever, the story essentials are little more than the fictionalized account of the decade-long hunt to locate and kill Osama Bin Laden. And even though Bigelow's film, which reunites her with The Hurt Locker scribe Mark Boal, runs over 2.5 hours, Zero Dark Thirty knows how to make every moment count. Whereas The Hurt Locker truly was a character study, Zero is much more of a procedural set against our so-called War on Terror.
Yet even though the center of the story, Jessica Chastain's Maya, is often reserved and completely consumed by her job, Bigelow and Boal haven't forgotten to make her a character as well. When Maya first enters, she's practically a blank slate. Fresh off of the plane in Pakistan, Maya witnesses the much-discussed torture of a detainee. To answer the question of whether or not the film glorifies torture, I'll merely offer this much: Maya has no problem telling a detainee that giving honest answers will make his life easier, but she doesn't exactly look on with icy approval as she watches that detainee suffer at the hands of CIA agent Dan (Jason Clarke). What Bigelow and Boal have pulled off, along with Jessica Chastain's work in front of the camera, is one person's journey from being an outsider doing an uncomfortable job, to becoming unwavering in her determination to see everything through.
Where Zero Dark Thirty could have been simplistic, sugar-coated, and jingoistic, it is instead meticulous, blunt, and intense, without emotional manipulation. One could accuse the film of trying too hard to be objective, but that all gets blow away by the film's masterstroke: the raid on Bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad. Bigelow's strength comes from her ability to generate tension without going overboard, and the tactic pays off grandly here. The raid is intense, but not without the appropriate grimness (women shot and killed, children left crying and alone, etc...). Yet best of all is the treatment of Bin Laden's death. In different hands, such a moment would be completely overwrought. Bigelow and Boal, however, allow the death to unfold in a relatively anti-climactic fashion that couldn't be more fitting for the movie's tone and themes. Yes, the SEALs got the "bad guy," but what now? Where do they have to go next? What repercussions could this death have? Answering those questions would need a completely different film, yet it's important that Zero doesn't wrap everything up so neatly that it gives a sense of complete and total closure.
However, the film does allow the right level of closure for Maya. Chastain is mostly front and center here, and turns in another performance that capitalizes on her wide emotional range. As reserved as Maya often is, Chastain's work never feels lazy, and just because she's putting up a poker face doesn't mean she's not present. If anything, it means the exact opposite. Being present and listening is what Maya does in order to inch towards her goal, through every disappointment and disaster. The rest of the ensemble turn in perfectly convincing work, although few truly have much to work with. Stand outs from the supporting cast include the above-mentioned Clarke, as well as Jennifer Ehle as an older, more experienced operative.
But at the end of the day, the film is mostly a showcase for Chastain to quietly carry the film, and for Bigelow's extraordinary storytelling and atmosphere to shine through. The aesthetic may be roughly the same as The Hurt Locker, but there's no way to walk out of Zero Dark Thirty and think that she's made the same movie twice. The Hurt Locker used its characters to paint a portrait of various kinds of soldiers. With Zero Dark Thirty, Bigelow moves a step up the ladder in terms of authority. She's looking at the people behind the scenes, the little pieces that have to be assembled before the troops undertake missions like the Abbottabad raid. In doing so, Zero Dark Thirty, which opens with audio from 9-1-1 calls on 9/11, feels applicable to a wider range of people, because of how it weaves in the broader implications of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It takes us from the moment of no return, all the way through an act of collective revenge, one that ellicits not cheers and grins, but solemn contemplation on what happened to us as a nation, and what we did, for better and for worse, because of those actions.