As Americans, we had never been so fixated on killing a single individual as we were Osama bin Laden, the brain behind Al Qaeda and dubbed architect of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. “Zero Dark Thirty,” the story of this 10-year manhunt, leaves out that social and political narrative, opting instead to capture the CIA’s operation to find and kill bin Laden from a purely procedural perspective.
Director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal’s tense yet human-focused style translates right over from their Oscar-winning effort “The Hurt Locker” to this film, which could find itself with a similar amount of accolades — if it doesn’t drown in controversy first.
Its depiction of torture scenes toward the beginning aside, “Zero Dark Thirty” conveys the CIA and main character Maya’s (Jessica Chastain) fixation on doing whatever it took to find bin Laden. It never stops to ask why, opting to use its opening minutes to play 9-1-1 calls from Sep. 11 over a black screen and get at our emotions rather than our rationale. It’s an effective technique, though the engrossing espionage plot blots out any emotional elements to the film until the very end.
The factually ambiguous Maya is an intriguing creation. She evolves very gradually over the film’s lengthy run time from a woman whom we presume to be in over her head to the only person with the stones to do what it takes to succeed. It’s as though Boal and Bigelow wanted to play with our assumptions about what a pretty redhead is or isn’t capable of and then ratchet her character up into this fiercely strong female character who can’t be labeled a dominatrix. Chastain brilliantly plays it very cool for much of the film and only turns up the dial in rhythm with the height of the stakes.
“Zero Dark Thirty” puts you in the trenches with the CIA in the way that Boal writes his script, as compared to “Argo,” which plays a tad more to the audience by explaining scenarios clearer and being especially wry. “Zero Dark Thirty” offers a handful of laughs, but it’s grittier and much more procedural in nature. Unlike fictional thrillers involving the CIA and other secret operations, it does not glamorize any part of the process and the script refuses to wedge exciting action sequences into the film to break up the pacing to appease viewers with shorter attention spans.
We don’t get a whole lot more than plot, so Chastain and actors Jason Clarke, Jennifer Ehle, Joel Edgerton, Kyle Chandler and Chris Pratt have to find openings to deliver character-telling moments to keep everyone human. Chastain puts on a straight face, but you sense her emotional roller coaster throughout. The others don’t get as many opportunities, but Bigelow has this incredible gift to turn them into more than guys wearing suits or military fatigues.
Bigelow constantly keeps her movie interesting and “Zero Dark Thirty” boasts exceptional editing. It’s easy to tell when something bad is going to happen because the tone of the film shifts so drastically, but the payoff of these climactic moments is always satisfying. The final scene, the raid on the compound where bin Laden was found is completely silent and utterly captivating, proving the how is as much if not more important than the end result (considering we all know what it is).
Much has been made about the film’s stance on torture, namely it depicts enhanced interrogation techniques and pivotal to the discovery of the information that ultimately led to bin Laden’s location. The graphic nature of these scenes will definitely be a matter of taste, but as to whether the movie glorifies torture — that’s stickier territory. It definitely suggests a certain degree of necessity in using harsh tactics in order for the CIA to get the information it needed, which is an issue of fact vs. Hollywood dramatization, but it doesn’t by any means milk the torture scenes for entertainment purposes.
If I had to guess, Boal and Bigelow wanted to convey how even the most horrific tactics were utilized to achieve the end goal of finding bin Laden, that there was a certain desperation and not much consideration for the ethics. The film takes nary a moment to consider the moral question of interrogation techniques, predominantly because it’s not a film about whether torture in this situation is ethical. It doesn’t depict characters relishing in torture, but characters who feel as though they have no other choice.
“Zero Dark Thirty” is a black ops thriller without the glitz of fancy technology, chase sequences in exotic locations and highly skilled super spies. It captures the steadfast effort of the CIA and the chances it took in order to even be in the position to attempt an operation on the bin Laden compound. It takes dramatic liberties to be sure, but it relies on just great filmmaking technique to rivet and captivate.
With such a timely subject and being the center of so much controversy (beyond the torture and also into how much the government cooperates with Hollywood), “Zero Dark Thirty” opts not to make any statements, political, thematic or otherwise. It consequently lacks the other facets we attribute to great movies, but what it does well it executes in consummate fashion.
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow
Written by Mark Boal
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Ehle