When Osama bin Laden was captured, the whole world was watching. Once again we not only relive the moment but go behind the scenes leading up to the military operation with Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty. This realistic flick is a refreshing ‘just the facts’ procedural drama that maintains an almost allergic aversion to melodrama. Bigelow didn’t want to cloud the agenda with any sidetracking sub-plots but headed straight for the source and maintain the course throughout.
Following the mental unravelling and rise to power of CIA agent Maya (Jessica Chastain), Zero Dark Thirty rides on her seemingly-circumstantial hunch that ultimately results in her looking over Osama bin Laden’s body bag. Through Maya we get a look at how the CIA went to work in the aftermath of 9/11, opening with an audio reminder of the attacks, arguably more for future generations than for us, then setting the tone with a brutal enhance interrogation scene. We also see the years of weariness, false leads and dashed hopes drain Chastain as others begin to question the futility of it all. Along for the ride are Jessica (Jennifer Ehle) and Dan (Jason Clarke), as they too feverishly spends nearly a decade sifting through clues and information. Maya eventually latches onto one lead in finding bin Laden – his main courier – and even when he is assumed dead, she doesn’t give up until she is proven correct. When various superiors try to toss her “whims” to the side in lieu of “protecting the homefront,” she is a bulldog and never lets go. When brought into a meeting to discuss her finding of bin Laden’s hiding place, she introduces herself to her superiors at Langley (Mark Strong and James Gandolfini) as “the motherfucker who found this place.” She is 100% certain of her findings – and she gets what she wants.
While the torture scenes and the SEALS raid grips attention, the film is basically the Jessica Chastain show, as she quickly becomes the center of the film. Her mesmerizing performance is not only Oscar-worthy but will likely win her the statute in a few months time. Brilliantly, Chastain shows us the dramatic change of character over a ten year period from an aggressive young women to an obsessive CIA operative. While the majority of the dialogue in Zero Dark Thirty is unemotional, centered around data, field-talk and speculation, Chastain embodies all the inner conflict in her tired, exhausted eyes. Everything about her is so riveting that you wonder whether this is a real woman or a fictional character.
The film surrounding Chastain is an intense and often fascinating ‘inside’ look at both the ‘dark side’ and the mundane side of the would-be ‘War on Terror’. It’s a nasty bit of business, and its matter-of-fact presentation of unsavory details could be read as an implicit endorsement, just as its climactic brutality denies you the catharsis you might be expecting. It merely exists to tell its story, not tell you how to feel about it.
But that seems to be the question with Kathryn Bigelow. What is her agenda? Like The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow uses here realistic style of filmmaking to immerse the audience in a tense military environment, creating a plausible story into an accurate account. We are never told whether this story is true, yet it’s certainly implied, so what ethical obligation does Bigelow have to not mislead the viewers? The real controversy is on the use of torture to capture Osama bin Laden. Sure there is the freedom of expression, using art as a medium, but what about your ethical obligation to not misconstrue a historical event to satisfy a personal opinion, (especially one so recent and so emotional as the capturing of America’s most wanted). Does Bigelow have an ethical obligation to check her facts before using cinema to “inform” the public? Nevertheless, it’s difficult and not fair to weigh the movie on this point, so on a purely cinematic level, Zero Dark Thirty is indeed Kathryn Bigelow second strike of lightening.
Final Verdict: Zero Dark Thirty is a fantastic achievement for Kathryn Bigelow. Powered by Jessica Chastain’s terrific performance, the film is a cracking thriller, a mournful drama, and a thoughtful meditation on the costs of violence even in the most seemingly justifiable circumstances. Bigelow and Chastain know all the strings to pull and there are few films that will have you leaving the theaters feeling more conflicted than Zero Dark Thirty.