I suppose my admiration for Zero Dark Thirty begins with the fact that the people involved were actually able to get it made as quickly as they were. Osama bin Laden was killed 20 months ago, and the notion of flipping that generation-defining moment into a Hollywood production so quickly and fastidiously is impressive in its own right. But, as we know, speed is one thing, quality is another.
So at the risk of beating around the bush with continued disclaimers, let me say frankly that upon watching Kathryn Bigelow’s new film, I stand proudly in its corner, hailing it as a masterful suspense thriller.
When the curtain is pulled back and the film itself begins, we meet the tireless and determined Maya (Jessica Chastain) a CIA operative heading the manhunt for bin Laden. The time is 2003 and America’s hear-no-evil-speak-no-evil stance on government-led torture is in full effect. Many of the film’s opening scenes show another American operative, Dan (Jason Clarke) torturing people for information about the whereabouts of al-Qaeda’s leader. These opening sequences set the scene for many things: chiefly, the film’s unwavering depiction of America’s (apparently previous) methods of attaining information.
Secondly, from a character perspective, they show us who Maya is as a worker, and a person. Initially, she observes these episodes of torment from the back of the dark rooms, watching closely but nervously. But as the sessions prove to be fruitful in gathering intel, we watch as her initial apprehension slowly turns to acceptance. This is a woman obsessed, which is written clearly all over Chastain’s stoic face.
From there, the film traces the hopes and failures and leaps of faith it took to track bin Laden. With painstaking detail and expert precision, we get an insider’s perspective of the just how thick government red tape is. Maya is the film’s anchor, but the movie makes way for many of her colleagues, all of who are played by character actors at the pinnacle of their respective games.
In addition to Clarke, whose blasé attitude to the men he’s torturing is as jaw dropping as it is terrifying, Maya is continually forced to jump through hurdles set by her CIA bosses, including Kyle Chandler (perfect in his inward rage), Mark Strong (perfect in his outward frustration) and James Gandolfini (perfect in his calculated authority). Édgar Ramírez, Mark Duplass, Harold Perrineau and especially Jennifer Ehle (in what may be the best performance of the film) are all superb as Maya’s mild-tempered colleagues, while Joel Edgerton, Chris Pratt and Frank Grillo all steal scenes late in the film as the SEALs sent in to execute the mission.
But much like Bigelow’s last film, The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty’s tight script (by The Hurt Locker Oscar winner Mark Boal) and frenzied execution are equally as important as the talking heads. Don’t get me wrong, Zero Dark Thirty is far more controlled than The Hurt Locker, both technically and structurally, but that certainly doesn’t make it any less thrilling. Word to the wise: this is not the action film that the trailers have made it out to be. Sure, there are sequences of monumental tension, which culminate in a thrilling finale that was so suspenseful it was almost unbearable, but the majority of this movie depicts American operatives talking. They talk in war rooms, offices, inside cubicles – usually about things that are difficult to understand, while using a vernacular that is consistency impossible to decipher. So it speaks highly to all of those involved that the extended moments of back-and-forth play as well as the explosions and gunplay.
I’ve been watching Jessica Chastain as an actress for all of two years now, and I can tell you with complete sincerity that her work in Zero Dark Thirty is the best performance I have seen her deliver. As the story evolves, Maya’s bloodlust for bin Laden becomes insatiable. She talks out of turn a handful of times (in fact, Maya singlehandedly redefines the effectiveness of the word “fuck” and its many derivatives), but mostly, this is a performance of expression. Whether it’s insurmountable frustration, appalling horror, or tearful enchantment, I was completely taken with every single aspect of her work here. We know nothing about Maya personally, but we know everything about her professionally. And, because Maya is her job, I felt in tuned with her motivations as well as any character I watched last year.
Zero Dark Thirty isn’t an easily film to stomach, but it’s not the action thriller I was led to believe it might be. It avoids any and all political affiliation, opting rather to stand as a cinematic exposé of one of the most memorable and significant events of our lifetime. While watching it, I was reminded of All the President’s Men, which was made less than a year after the events it depicts. Many felt that film got some of it wrong. Time revealed its accuracy and filmic wonderment, which my heart of hearts tells me is precisely what will happen here. A