With Zero Dark Thirty, Oscar-winning Hurt Locker director/writer duo Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal re-team to tell the behind-the-scenes story of the greatest manhunt of all time: the search for al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, in the wake of the September 11th terrorist attacks.
The first two-thirds of the film trail a CIA analyst named “Maya” (Jessica Chastain) who – following the 9/11 attacks – is thrust into the thick of the bin Laden search. Maya proves to be a voracious investigator – “a killer,” as she’s dubbed by her boss (Kyle Chandler) – but as months of the hunt stretch into years marked by frustrations, dead-ends and failures, what was once enthusiasm becomes obsession. Finally, after nearly a decade, when an unlikely lead at last breaks into solid intel, Maya struggles to convince the powers that be to authorize one of the most important missions in US military history.
In reality, Zero Dark Thirty plays like a workplace drama that is bolstered at the end by an intense military thriller. The determining factor between those who will love it, and those who will hate it, is how well the tension of the workplace drama matches the tension of the action set pieces. Despite the fact that the climax of the film is also one of the biggest headlines of the 21st century (i.e., known to pretty much everyone), ZDT will nonetheless leave many viewers feeling in need of a shower and a calming drink by the time it’s all said and done.
It is largely thanks to a fantastic cast that even the static moments of the film carry so much weight and gravity. Standing center ring is Jessica Chastain (The Help, The Debt, Tree of Life) whose career has been on a meteoric rise with good reason. Maya is not your traditional three-dimensional character; rather, she almost acts as the embodiment of America’s relentless drive to achieve a single goal. With her plucky, spitfire demeanor and wide-eyed haunted stare, watching Maya’s transition from neophyte to tireless cynic and back into a vulnerable, feeling, human being, is a nuanced experience conveyed by a deftly-skilled actress. And, when given opportunity, Chastain certainly steals scenes with some standout monologues and one-liners. A star has indeed arrived…
Also standing out in the crowd are Joel Edgerton (The Thing) and Chris Pratt (Park and Recreation) as two members of the DEVGRU special forces unit. The pair have great chemistry and banter, and Pratt puts his comedic background to great use – only to then trump that good standing with impressive dramatic chops during the film’s climatic sequence. Another standout is Chastain’s Lawless co-star Jason Clarke, who plays “Dan,” the CIA analyst/interrogator who first trains Maya in the field. Clarke brings equal mix rawness and charm to just about every role he plays, and here he creates a character so complex and engaging, so effortlessly, it’s almost frightening.
This is a movie of many faces, and the quality central performances get a boost from a parade of actors who provide support. We get everything from acclaimed stars like James Gandolfini (The Sopranos), Kyle Chandler (Argo) and Jennifer Ehle (Contagion); to character actors like Stephen Dillane (Game of Thrones), Edgar Ramirez (Wrath of the Titans) and Mark Strong (Kick-Ass); to unlikely additions such as comedy actor Mark Duplass (The League) and action star Scott Adkins (Expendables 2). And considering how little action there actually is in the film, it’s a small feat that no one feels underdeveloped or extraneous. Players play their parts, and then move on.
Boal’s script has courted controversy due to claims that it exposes too much actual classified information about US intelligence operations. While this is a movie (not a documentary concerned with “truth”), there is the sense that ZDT progresses according to a cut-and-dry bullet-point list of dates and events, rather than a strong narrative through line. However, that’s not much of a detriment, thanks to Bigelow’s ability to add weight, insight and gravity to each event we pause to explore.
It is the (at least perceived) sense of verisimilitude in Boal’s script that can often be the most disturbing aspect of the film: the thought of discussions and events we are witnessing actually being accurate to real life is quite unnerving when it comes to scenes of aggressive interrogation, bumbling government bureaucracy or combat casualties. The myth of heroism is a bright thing; ZDT manages to convey the very real darkness, personal toll and utter confusion that is often the reality of that myth.
The Hurt Locker illustrated Bigelow’s ability to create white-knuckle thrills even out of quiet, static moments – and this film pushes that talent to new levels. From the very first frame, she crafts a bubble of stress and tension that is subtle yet permeates every scene without the overpowering tactics of ambient music or frantic camera movement. Our own real-life angst fills the stillness and quiet, sapping us even as we watch Maya being worn down by that very same emotion. The final third of the film is its crowning achievement, and stands as one of the best (and most tense) military action sequences ever captured on film.
Some people may not be engaged by the office drama and interrogation sequences that comprise the first two-thirds of the story. However, as stated before, by the time the credits roll many will be in need of a cleansing wash and a stiff drink – and even those not won over by the office drama, or Maya’s character arc, will still likely get caught up in the big action/thriller finish.
It may be going into wide release here in 2013, but for those (like myself) who saw it earlier, it’s easy to name ZDT as one of the best films of 2012.
Zero Dark Thirty is now playing in wide release. It is 157 minutes long, and is Rated R for strong violence including brutal disturbing images, and for language.