It should be noted that this review discusses the real-world events that Zero Dark Thirty is based on, and therefore might be considered spoilery by some.
Director Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty isn’t just great dramatic filmmaking, it’s also great journalism — which is a really weird concept, but there you have it. The film tells the decade-long tale of how a CIA operative slowly, methodically located Osama bin Laden in the wake of 9/11. In so doing, the movie could’ve turned into a dry, by-the-books accounting of the humdrum reality and red tape that led up to that fateful raid on bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound in May, 2011. But instead, it’s one of the best films of the year, a thrilling procedural and study of the labors of obsession.
Bigelow’s naturalistic, you-are-there direction, screenwriter Mark Boal’s fair and balanced — if you will forgive the term — take on these events (informed by research and interviews with the real people involved in the search), and deep, believable performances across the board combine in such a way that Zero Dark Thirty will have you sweating it out by the final reel as if you, too, are about to walk into that compound with SEAL Team Six. Seriously, my heart was pounding as the two Black Hawk helicopters soared through the mountain range between Afghanistan and Pakistan on their way to bin Laden, despite the fact that I, of course, knew exactly how this was all going to end!
But the viewer’s blood starts pumping long before that sequence — right from the get-go, in fact, as we meet Jessica Chastain’s Maya, a green CIA op newly arrived at a U.S. “black site” in the Middle East. Apparently not even getting the chance to change out of her inappropriately neat business suit, Maya is quickly introduced to the information gathering — a.k.a. torture — techniques of Jason Clarke’s hardened interrogator Dan. She watches, clearly troubled, as Dan coaxes, warns, befriends, and then waterboards his al-Qaeda-connected prisoner, all in a matter of minutes. (That Dan, who calls his detainee “bro,” also has a Ph.D only drives home how little we really know and understand about what goes on in the war, and who the people are who are fighting it.)
Clarke, by the way, is amazing as Dan, who can be as charming as he is monstrous, though the film is Chastain’s all the way. These characters, as well as the long parade of familiar faces (Mark Strong, Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Ehle, Edgar Ramirez and James Gandolfini to name just a few) who come and go through this tale, have very little by way of personal lives or the typical movie-character anchors. No spouses, no back story, nothing to drive them but what we see onscreen: A devotion to the job, and in Maya’s case — she’s reportedly based on a real person — a fixation on finding bin Laden that perhaps leaves little room for anything else in her life anyway. She’s haunted by the search for her target, even while it changes her. In time, she finds herself matter-of-factly using the same torture techniques as Dan, for example.
Bigelow and Boal did the Oscar dance in 2010 with their Iraq War drama The Hurt Locker, but Zero Dark Thirty operates on a whole other level. First and foremost, it’s a procedural as Maya digs and digs and must deal with obstacles not just in the field or the interrogation room, but also in the home office as the mission statement from high up evolves. Eventually, bin Laden is no longer the focus as her bosses decide that the al-Qaeda operators on the ground pose the more immediate threat.
“Give me targets,” Mark Strong’s CIA boss demands in the War on Terror equivalent of Glengarry Glen Ross’ Alec Baldwin/steak knives scene. There’s no secret room upstairs, he says, where a hidden team of operatives are conducting the real hunt for terrorists. What you see is what we’ve got. If that’s a scary notion for us, imagine how Maya and the rest must feel.
Jessica Chastain as the obsessed Maya.
The film also sprawls, over years, over continents, over characters and over the murky grey area between right and wrong. You’ll get lost in it all at times, no doubt, whether it’s when the characters start throwing around suspected terrorists’ “war names” versus “family names” at the speed of Howard Hawks, or when the hunt finally takes to the streets of a Pakistani market and the camera reaches a ground-level immersion of sights, sounds and tension.
What the film doesn’t show is the stuff it can’t, or can’t without becoming a “movie” that is. The 9/11 attacks are heard in the opening moments, but never seen. Bin Laden himself is glimpsed in a blurry frame or two at most. And most importantly, Maya never becomes a Gun-Wielding Heroine. She’s actually mostly absent during the final, extended raid scene, though her presence is surely felt at times, and she’s ultimately the punctuation mark on the whole affair.
One of the keys to Zero Dark Thirty’s effectiveness can be found in that final raid and the unsympathetic approach Bigelow and Boal take as the SEALs, led by Joel Edgerton and Chris Pratt, stalk through the compound, doing their dark work. You see, they don’t just shoot a guy here. They shoot him, then they walk up to his body and shoot it a couple of more times, just to make sure. And the guy’s wife, and his kids, are standing in the other room watching. And then they do it to the next guy, and the next. The music doesn’t swell, the camera doesn’t go slo-mo, the characters don’t quip… it just happens, and then it’s over. It’s unflinching, it’s not heroic, it’s brutal — but it’s their job.
Zero Dark Thirty reminds us that sometimes real-life tales make for the best kinds of movies. While there’s no way to truly know what led to finding bin Laden, this is probably the closest we’re going to get for some time. It’s also next-level filmmaking — smart, brave and intense, and, hopefully, trendsetting.