Zero Dark Thirty
In a way, I’m glad that it took me so long to get to “Zero Dark Thirty,” removed from the height of the hype and controversy that followed it into theatres when it went into wide release in January. However, as a movie buff, I’m still very disappointed I didn’t see Kathryn Bigelow’s riveting thriller sooner.
It was definitely worth the wait. Like any great film based on a true story, it’s essential that Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal, following up their Oscar triumphs for “The Hurt Locker,” keep us completely engaged in the story, even though we know how it ends. Of course, when you are taking us deep inside the CIA’s decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden after 9/11, it would take a pair of hacks to screw that up. And coming off the high-water mark they accomplished with their smart, gripping look at the life of bomb disposal soldiers in Iraq in “Locker,” these two are anything but hacks.
The film starts with a black screen, and franctic radio transmissions and phone calls from that fateful day in September 2001, when members of Al Queda hijacked four American planes, and killed 3,000 people in the worst terrorist attack in American history. The next thing we see is the interrogation of an asset in an undisclosed location by two CIA agents: Dan (Jason Clarke), and Maya (Jessica Chastain). Maya is new to field work, and when Dan gets brutal with their detainee, including waterboarding and putting a dog collar on him, Maya has to look away, although she’ll get numb to the process soon enough. The way Bigelow and Boal use torture in the larger narrative of the film is uncompromising and honest, at least it feels honest to what we know has taken place during the War on Terror. Are they saying that information gotten through the use of torture led to bin Laden? I didn’t think so, but others do; however, Bigelow’s point in including the scenes in the film isn’t political, but historical– on the road to getting bin Laden, we compromised our morality as a world power in hopes of getting justice. To not include our use of torture in a film about bin Laden would be dishonest, especially given everything we know about the War on Terror now.
It’s the quest for intelligence that will lead Maya and the CIA to bin Laden that’s, ultimately, the heart of the film, and it makes for great drama. Yes, there’s action and explosions, like a recreation of the 2005 London attack, and a suicide bombing on a US base in Afghanistan, but Bigelow and Boal’s film spends a good portion of its time in offices, and at computers, as Maya becomes obsessed with one particular lead, a courier, that could be the key to finding bin Laden. This is the third film this year where government politics has been laid bare in telling a remarkable true story (the other two are also Oscar nominees, “Argo” and “Lincoln”), but “Zero Dark Thirty” trumps both of them because of how immediate it is. (It also remains remarkably non-partisan; although we see and hear snippets of Bush and Obama on-screen, the focus is on Maya and how she goes about her business, and doesn’t get into the larger political debate.) That’s never truer than when Maya discovers the now-famous compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, where bin Laden was staying, and Seal Team Six stages the raid that killed him. The raid makes up that last 30-40 minutes of the film, and it’s one of the most stunning sequences any filmmaker has ever put on film; Bigelow and her creative team are in great form, and keep us on the edge of our seats as what we have known about the raid– the downed helicopter, the use of women as shields, the abundance of intel found at the compound –finds itself in context with the larger narrative of what happened, and what the Seals had to contend with, like the potential for civilian casulties when nearby neighbors wake up. But as we know, this team of Seals is the best of the best for a reason, and they stick to script while also improvising brilliantly when necessary.
In the end, however, it’s Maya that feels like the real hero of the hunt for bin Laden. There’s supposedly a real-life “Maya,” but even if there wasn’t, Chastain’s raw, determined performance makes the character feel real. There’s no artificial “drama” or “soap opera” to Maya’s story; she’s a career agent with one goal. She has no time for relationships, or friends, or even casual chit-chat around the water cooler. She does find allies in people like Dan (played by Clarke as a man worn down by the realities of his job); Jessica (Jennifer Ehle); Jack (Harold Perrineau); and even her section chief, Joseph Bradley (Kyle Chandler), but in the end, she’s on her own. I get the feeling Bigelow can relate, as she’s also a strong female in a profession that doesn’t know what to make of women with laser-focus on goals without getting bogged down in the drama that makes the headlines. After a career of genre filmmaking that includes movies like “Point Break,” “Strange Days,” and “K2: The Widowmaker,” Bigelow finally has a collaborator in Boal who’s challenged her as an artist to dig deeper, and explore the emotional depths of characters, rather than just putting them in death-defying situations. That’s never more evident in “Zero Dark Thirty” than in the final scene, when Maya, after bin Laden’s death, finds herself alone in an airplane. Some people have seen on her face the look of a woman whose work has forced her to make terrible choices, and question what it was for. I disagree; I see someone who, having accomplished what has become her life’s pursuit, is at a crossroads in terms of what to do next. We may never know what that moment led to for the real Maya, but for Bigelow and Chastain, I’m dying to find out, because they left me speechless here.