REVIEW: Kathryn Bigelow's Angular 'Zero Dark Thirty' Is A Stunning, Riveting Achievement
zero dark thirty
Kathryn Bigelow's angular thriller Zero Dark Thirty begins and ends with events that have been seared into public memory — the attacks on September 11, 2001 and the death of Osama bin Laden on May 2, 2011 in Abbottabad, Pakistan, two incidents that bookended a decade in which America's sense of security and place in the world were radically shaken.
The film presents the story of what happened in that dark space between. Using a combination of whatever details screenwriter and journalist Mark Boal could turn up in his research and cautious fiction, Zero Dark Thirty details how the U.S. was finally able to track down and kill the elusive head of the organization responsible for the worst terrorist attack on our soil.
But at almost two and a half hours long — an epic running time that never seems excessive but makes you feel the stretch of the years being chronicled — the film also teases your attention away from those known events, and brings it to the gritty, exhausting and sometimes ugly work being done on the ground and the type of people who engage in it.
It's a curious thing that two of the awards season's most significant films are stealthy procedurals: Lincoln, which beneath the surface gloss of a prestige biopic is a vivid showcase of the messy, difficult means by which the amendment to outlaw slavery was passed, and Zero Dark Thirty, which is an examination of how contemporary warfare has so much more to do with information than with sending troops out into battle. Both reveal the strenuous, time-consuming and ethically complicated efforts behind their well-known achievements.
While Steven Spielberg's film uses these exertions to bring animation, prickliness and warmth to characters that could have been wax-museum distant, Bigelow's consciously holds its emotions at arm's length, where they'll be less likely to interfere with the work being done. Such is the choice made by its heroine, known only by her first name, Maya, and played by Jessica Chastain as a crisply dedicated but green CIA analyst with few other interests in her life other than tracking down bin Laden — a target she comes to fixate on as she builds experience and confidence.
Zero Dark Thirty plays out in the shrouded and unpretty backstage of the War on Terror: embassy cubicles, dusty military camps and black sites where detainees undergo "enhanced interrogation techniques" that the film does not soften. Maya arrives fresh from D.C. to witness a prisoner being worked on by Dan (Jason Clarke, slipping easily from sardonic to savage). Sleep deprivation, waterboarding, confinement boxes and beatings — Maya doesn't take easily to these techniques but doesn't shrink from them either. Soon she's ordering them herself as she searches for information about Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, rumored top al-Qaeda courier and the man she thinks is key to finding bin Laden.
The early fuss by Obama opponents who claimed the film (originally slated for an October release) would be a propagandizing election tool is laughable in context. The story starts long before Obama's arrival on the presidential stage, and his on-screen presence in a single scene, in which Maya and her colleagues watch his televised speech about America not engaging in torture, is representative, in a wincingly complicated way, of how the new administration's stance will complicate and slow what they're doing.