Critical Confabulations

a theatre, film & pop culture review

Film Review: Zero Dark Thirty

It may always feel too soon for a film about 9/11, but a film about the takedown of Osama bin Laden? Not a soul isn’t ready for that.

121211_CBOX_ZeroDarkThirty.jpg.CROP.rectangle3-largeDirector Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal — the Oscar-winning team behind 2008’s The Hurt Locker — had originally set out to tell the story of a failed manhunt, but then it actually happened: On May 2, 2011, President Obama, who immediately received the highest approval ratings of his presidency, announced the death of Osama bin Laden. Bigelow and Boal quickly scrapped their original screenplay and began again, feverishly, to tell the tale of the female CIA agent who spent twelve years tracking the sociopath who masterminded the attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, killing over 3,000 people.

Despite what the film claims, it wasn’t just one woman who brought down bin Laden, it was a team of women (yes, women); Boal simply combined these individuals into one steely personality, Maya. Though CIA Director Michael Morell takes issue with the film’s depiction of what he refers to, in ludicrously vague terms, as “enhanced interrogation techniques,” there’s no denying that agents, to some degree, tortured certain suspects (even if President Obama claimed that America doesn’t torture). Boal, a former journalist, may have been permitted extensive access to CIA sources, but this is not a documentary (though the film’s creative press folks insist it be referred to as “a unique kind of motion picture: the reported film”) and moviegoers should not get caught up in the minutia. Because, quite frankly, whether fact or fiction, Zero Dark Thirty is startlingly brilliant.

Kathryn Bigelow is not an emotional filmmaker, and Zero Dark Thirty is filmed with a coolness and precision meant to distance us emotionally, while engaging us vigorously and intellectually. Beginning in a darkness only infiltrated with the desperate voices of those trapped in the towers calling out to 9/11 operators for reassurance (steel yourself — they’re real recordings), we immediately know where we are and why everything that follows — those “enhanced interrogation techniques” — are sanctioned.

But we’re not allowed to be overcome with the unspeakable sorrows of that day. As quickly as the voices rise in the darkness, they fade into they daylight as the film visually opens on an interrogation room where Dan (Jason Clarke), a charismatic, but no-nonsense interrogator brutalizes Ammar, a suspected 9/11 terrorist (Reda Kateb), while someone in a ski mask hovers in the recesses of the room. We watch as Dan forces Ammar to the ground and pins his arms and legs down, covering his face with a cloth and pouring pitcher after pitcher of water over his face. Ammar bubbles and sputters, gasping for air but only receiving gulp after gulp of choking water, and we take it all in with a coolness and detachment of military pros.

Does Zero Dark Thirty glorify torture, as so many have already furiously complained? No, Bigelow shoots the scene in a businesslike manner; there are no musical cues or manipulative angles. We don’t sympathize with Ammar or revel in his torture. Neither meant to shock or condone, the straightforward scene is just a record of the methods and lengths taken to exact revenge for those lives lost; if it startles, it’s because of the realization, not the dramatization.

The masked figure turns out to be Maya, the leader of the hunt for bin Laden and our strangely mysterious heroine. Jessica Chastain’s Maya is a prickly loner who observes the torture in silence, only to forcefully urge it on as soon as she’s out of Ammar’s earshot. We know next to nothing about her, only that she was recruited by the CIA out of high school, and hints at a personal life — playful ribbing that she needs to get laid (perhaps by that scruffy, charming bad boy Dan) and a glancing shot at a screensaver of her, smiling, with her arms wrapped around a young girl (daughter? niece?) — only startle and distract with their intimacy. Strong-willed and icy, Maya is a formidable presence who not only can hang with the boys, but can tell them how it is and get the job done by whatever means necessary. Chastain, with her flaming hair and slight frame, is masterful at presenting a steely demeanor tinged with frazzled nerves and dogged certainty.

Boal trusts that we’ll eventually make sense of all the CIA jargon and Middle Eastern names that Maya throws at us, and that we’ll catch our bearings in the myriad of  desert and office locations that she takes us to — and we do. This is a complex script that’s a standout largely for the faith it puts in its audience’s intelligence, and Bigelow maintains that faith, dexterously moving her expert ensemble from scene to scene with little pause for reflection. What was surely a painstakingly tedious twelve-year hunt becomes a grippingly paced action film, culminating in a claustrophobic, night-vision-goggled, breath-holding takedown of the Pakistani compound bin Laden brazenly hid out in the middle of Abbottabad. It’s a brilliantly executed climax to an all-around stunning and vital piece of filmmaking.

Zero Dark Thirty
Opened on December 19 in New York and Los Angeles; opens nationwide January 11

Directed by Kathryn Bigelow; written by Mark Boal; director of photography, Greig Fraser; edited by Dylan Tichenor and William Goldenberg; music by Alexandre Desplat; production design by Jeremy Hindle; costumes by George L. Little; produced by Mr. Boal, Ms. Bigelow and Megan Ellison; released by Columbia Pictures. Running time: 2 hours 36 minutes.

WITH: Jessica Chastain (Maya), Jason Clarke (Dan), Joel Edgerton (Patrick), Jennifer Ehle (Jessica), Mark Strong (George), Kyle Chandler (Joseph Bradley), Edgar Ramirez (Larry), James Gandolfini (C.I.A. director), Chris Pratt (Justin), Callan Mulvey (Saber), Fares Fares (Hakim), Reda Kateb (Ammar), Harold Perrineau (Jack), Tushaar Mehra (Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti) and Stephen Dillane (National Security Adviser).

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This entry was posted on December 27, 2012 by in Film, Film Reviews and tagged , , , , , .

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