For the second time in the past month we have a film where the outcome is known. And for the second time, the tension couldn’t be higher. Everyone, even young kids, know who Osama bin Laden was. We know what he did, we know what he financed and carried out. Zero Dark Thirty, the brilliant new film from director Kathryn Bigelow, chronicles the ten year manhunt for bin Laden in as authentic a way as one could ask for. This is a chilling account of torture, spying, and the CIA’s determination (well, at least some of them) to get bin Laden. More procedural than straight actioner (think Zodiac), Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal keep the authenticity factor high and the rah-rah stuff nonexistent. This was a mission, plain and simple.
The film begins on September 11, 2001. With nothing but a black screen to watch, we hear an agonizing phone call made by a woman from one of the Trade Centers. From there we move chronologically; witnessing interrogations with torture tactics, CIA intel meetings, and ultimately the mission to assassinate bin Laden. The central figure is Maya (Chastain), a young and determined agent who believes the key to unlocking bin Laden’s location lies within the whereabouts of his trusted courier, a man named Abu Ahmed. Find him, find bin Laden.
Bigelow and Boal’s first masterstroke is not treating the audience like they’re imbeciles. We all know of bin Laden, so there’s no big humdrum exposition scene where his face is put on a projector and his evil actions are explained. In fact, bin Laden’s face is never shown once. The film moves as though it is its own tactical mission, only cluing us in to what we absolutely must know. The scenes of “enhanced” interrogation are harrowing and difficult to watch, but Boal’s narrative never draws a moral line in the sand. If you believe torture worked, you’ll see what you want to see. Likewise if you believe the opposite. The goal of the film is to show us what happened, not preach. When we finally do arrive at the raid on bin Laden’s suburban hideout, it is one of the most intense action scenes of the year. No flag-waving, no bumper stickers, just mission accomplished. Chastain does a masterful job of carrying the film, and in some ways redefines our perception of gender roles in spy agencies. Jason Clarke turns in a star-making supporting performance as Dan, the lead interrogator who’s capable of waterboarding one moment and joking with co-workers the next. He’s a polarizing character that is sure to drum up discussion. Zero Dark Thirty has nary a wasted scene and very little in the way of respite from the intensity and power of its story and execution. It’s one of 2012’s best films.
Studio: Columbia Pictures
Length: 157 Minutes
Rating: R for strong violence including brutal disturbing images, and for language.
Theatrical Release: December 19, 2012 (Limited) / January 11, 2013 (Wide)
Directed by: Kathryn Bigelow
Written by: Mark Boal
Cast: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Reda Kateb, Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Ehle