Three years ago director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Marc Boal collaborated on The Hurt Locker which won them both individual Academy Awards as well as taking home the coveted Oscar for Best Picture. With Zero Dark Thirty the pair reunite to examine the decade-long search for Osama bin Laden.
The project was not with pitfalls or controversy. Bigelow and Boal were about to start filming an entirely different script when news hit that American forces had found and killed the man responsible for the attacks on 9/11. Scrapping their initial project, Bigelow and Boal refocused to examine the work that went in to finding America’s most wanted.
The film’s detractors (almost none of whom have seen the film) attack it for what some believe is a pro-torture stance, the filmmakers access to classified information surrounding the search for bin Laden, and some have even argued against what they (wrongfully) believe is a pro-Obama propaganda piece. None of these allegations are true. What is true, however, is Zero Dark Thirty is the best movie of 2012.
Our window into the search for bin Laden is shown through the eyes of an increasingly obsessed CIA agent named Maya (Jessica Chastain). In the first scene of the film our still relatively green protagonist is appalled to witness the waterboarding and torture of prisoners in a black site in Pakistan. Far from taking a pro-torture stance, the movie admits to the methods used in the early days seeking out bin Laden and the relatively mixed results those methods produced in terms of actual intelligence without judging them as either inherently good or evil. Maya is a quick study, and 40-minutes later (and a few years down the line) she is leading these same interrogation scenes.
I’m not going to tell you the movie is always easy to watch. However, Bigelow takes extreme care to use such sequences for a clear purpose, the most important being the change in Maya over time and the growing toll the search would take on her. The film is as much, if not more, about what the search for bin Laden does to her as it is about the search itself.
Zero Dark Thirty balances an amazing amount of themes. These include behind-the-scenes politics both in the field and in Washington, the justified use of force in certain situations, the many-layered mystery surrounding the search to find bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders, the failures of the CIA, and the stress and growing obsession of one woman to find al Queda courier Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti (Tushaar Mehra) whom she is certain will lead the CIA straight to bin Laden but who many at the CIA believe is already dead.
Bigelow and Boal refuse to deliver a rousing simplistic patriotic tale. While Maya and her team are the good guys, they’re unquestionably stuck in a shadowy world of gray their job requires of them, and they are far from perfect. The film points out the CIA’s many failures in their hunt for the leader of al Qaeda as well as the obvious personal flaws which make Maya not only hard to work but also limit her chances of advancement within the agency.
Bigelow makes all the right choices here. Her main character, a true believer lost in her own obsession, and at times in over her head, is a perfect protagonist for such a tale and Chastain proves to be up to the challenges such a role requires. Other actors move in and out of the film, most notably Jason Clarke, Joel Edgerton, Mark Strong, Jennifer Ehle, Kyle Chandler, and James Gandolfini, but nearly the entire weight of the story (much like the weight of the investigation) falls squarely on the shoulders of our main character (who heaps much of the responsibility on herself).
In fact, Maya is only ever relegated to a bystander in the film’s final act during the climactic sequence involving SEAL Team Six‘s (Chris Pratt, Taylor Kinney, Callan Mulvey, Phil Somerville, Nash Edgerton, and Mike Colter) deployment based on her information that gives them the probable location of bin Laden. Once again Bigelow is careful here to let events unfold naturally without the need of rousing score or an overly elaborate action scene. Shown in real time, the squad goes about their business taking control of the compound and seeking out their target. The routine nature of their reliance and understanding of each others duties, and how they are carried out, is far more intriguing than anything which could have been added to the sequence to amp up the action or tension.
The only possible complaint I could raise against the movie is the choice of opening with a black screen and sounds of the 9/11 attacks. The sequence is disconcerting, but that’s the point. And It’s really a no-win situation for the director as the movie needs to put the audience back in the time and place of 9/11 to explain the world in which Maya will find herself. The only other choice, showing the attacks, wouldn’t have worked and would have begun the film with far broader strokes than the deftly painted canvas Bigelow and her team deliver throughout this masterpiece.
With an emotional edge that still will be quite raw for several viewers Zero Dark Thirty is an engrossing adaptation of a true story about one woman’s refusal to give up despite push back from her superiors and threats against her life. It’s also an amazing piece of filmmaking by a director who is continuing to improve and grow as a filmmaker. Bigalow throws her audience, much like her leading lady, right into the middle of the action without feeling the need to handhold or talk down to her viewers. You may not catch all the references, especially early on, but you will understand the purpose and logic behind the actions taken (both good and bad) as the movie provides those unfamiliar with the particulars time to catch up as the search begins.