Kathryn Bigelow’s new film is an absolutely exhilarating piece of filmmaking. From the way it maps the meticulous and often times frustrating inner-workings of the CIA to its thrilling last 45 minutes, this is expert storytelling filtered through a contemporary lens of controversial events. It is not so much a political film as much as it is a film about the minutiae of the gargantuan task of finding and killing one of America’s worst enemies. Fundamentally it is a story about obsession.
Jessica Chastain plays Maya, a CIA greenhorn who finds herself stationed in Pakistan dealing with known al-Qaeda operatives or people with alleged ties to the terrorist organization. At first she doesn’t want to be there – she along with the audience is thrust into the ugly torture (or “enhanced interrogation” as they call it) practices of her fellow American operatives – but she soon learns the ropes of extracting information by any means necessary. Jason Clarke, whose character Dan seems more like an older brother than a seasoned CIA vet, casually chats with Chastain outside a torture bunker before heading inside to waterboard a terrorist sympathizer, and it is all shown with brutal honesty. “When you lie to me,” Dan sternly reports to the prisoner, “I hurt you.” This sort of moral grey area is what makes Zero Dark Thirty so interesting.
Much has been made of the film’s torture scenes, and whether or not the filmmakers glorify the practice. I can tell you right now that it is very much to the contrary – even though sometimes these practices do produce a lead for the characters, the blunt nature of the scenes undercuts any sort of glamorization people may have thought they portrayed. The audience — as well as the characters — is implicit in the violence and it is left to the viewer to decide whether the actions taken justify the ends. Without any didactic viewpoint these situations, warts and all, are portrayed judgment free.
Eventually the tortured al-Qaeda financier gives up the alleged name of Osama Bin Laden’s courier, starting off a decade-long game of obsession for Maya on whether the bit of intelligence she desperately clings to is correct or not. The same bit of intelligence sometimes runs cold, sometimes it gets her friends killed, but most of all it showcases the way in which a belief like that can come to define a person so explicitly that you may run the risk of destroying your life if you stick with that obsession.
In her victories and in her frustrations we don’t necessarily come to know Maya as a person, but we come to know her as someone who knows what she wants. It just so happens that what this particular person wants the most is to kill Osama Bin Laden – but at what cost, the movies asks, was this event to her. Later on the CIA chief played by James Gandolfini asks her what else she’s worked on while at the agency, and the reluctant Maya responds saying “Nothing. Absolutely nothing.” Her obsession denies her from giving in and challenges her not to give up, and it is because of this resilience that Osama Bin Laden is killed. Does it hint at any sort of outward “American” resilience? Not really – it instead seeks to show the personal process of this important historical event.
The script is razor sharp – coming from Bigelow’s Hurt Locker writing and producing partner Mark Boal, who is a former military journalist. It is excessively procedural much in the same way 70s thrillers like All the President’s Men or David Fincher’s 2007 film Zodiac meticulously mapped out each tangential lead however dangerous or foolish they may be. The cinematography is predominantly naturalistic and raw handheld shots that function to downplay any sort of cinematic flair – it gets the job done by putting you in the middle of the action whether the camera is in close-up during a heated discussion in a meeting room or whether it’s the POV night-vision footage from a Seal Team Six member during the final raid on Bin Laden’s compound. The film’s two and a half hour running time is a non-issue, mostly because Bigelow’s masterful handling of each component is a real treat, having each intriguing piece steadily come together in a story managing to keep you on edge even though you already know the ending.
Zero Dark Thirty is a controversial film, it is a divisive film, but there can be no justification in anybody calling it a bad film. I think it will stand as one of a handful of defining films of the decade, not only because we remain embroiled in the War on Terror and it speaks to our post-9/11 culture, but also because the technical ability on display here is downright jealousy inducing. It is an absolutely engrossing and brilliant film that is deserved of the year’s highest honors.