Title: Zero Dark Thirty
Directed By: Kathryn Bigelow
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Ehle, Harold Perrineau, Reda Kateb, Fares Fares, Mark Strong, Edgar Ramirez, Mark Duplass, James Gandolfini, Joel Edgerton, Chris Pratt
Using his experience with an American bomb squad to develop a fictitious story for “The Hurt Locker” is one thing, but writer Mark Boal’s decision to tackle the death of Osama bin Laden takes journalistic moviemaking to another level, one that comes with an immense amount of societal and ethical pressure, on top of the challenge of just making a good movie. But it’s a good thing Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow were the pair to take on that challenge because it’s highly unlikely any other duo could have pulled it off quite like them.
“Zero Dark Thirty” focuses on Jessica Chastain’s Maya, a top-notch CIA analyst sent to Pakistan to join a team tasked with tracking down high-ranking members of Al Qaida, with an ultimate goal of taking out Osama bin Laden. At first, Maya doesn’t take to the CIA Black Site’s brutal interrogation tactics, but as the years go on and colleagues lose their jobs and, in some cases, their lives, Maya’s determination peaks and she does whatever it takes to gather solid intel.
“Zero Dark Thirty” is a heavy-duty piece and Bigelow wastes no time putting the audience in the appropriate headspace. The film kicks off with a montage of 9/11 phone calls playing over black and the sequence is cut perfectly, rousing the heartache of that day through a sense of hysteria, but also by giving certain audio clips time to breathe, establishing a personal connection. By the time the film hits the “2 Years Later” title card, your heart is already pounding through your chest.
The sense of unease continues as the story moves to Pakistan where Dan (Jason Clarke) is busy trying to pressure information out of a detainee (Reda Kateb). Maya’s crash course in life at the CIA Black Site consists of her sitting in a dank room, watching Dan try to break down his captive via water boarding, starvation, violence and more. While the tactics themselves are bound to make anyone squirm, it’s Kateb’s treatment of his character and Bigelow’s presentation of him that make the moments truly disturbing. Even after being plunged back into the horrors of 9/11 all over again, there’s still a degree of concern for Kateb. He isn’t just some set piece representing the bad guy. Bigelow gives us just as much access to Kateb’s Ammar as Maya and Dan, and then rather than labeling him the bad guy, she lets the audience think for themselves, creating an ideal amount of inner turmoil. Are you hurting enough from 9/11 to accept the torture of this man or is it going too far? And then, are you upset with yourself for hoping for mercy for a man connected to the attacks?
As the film progresses, even though Bigelow never tries to persuade you one way or another, Chastain is so incredibly convincing as Maya, you naturally support her cause and trust her instincts. Maya is fascinating through and through. Trained to be emotionless, Maya is her job, but Chastain pinpoints the ideal opportunities to let her sentiments seep through, both selling the fact that Maya is a product of the CIA, having been recruited right out of high school, but also that she’s a person, too. Every other character involved is fully engrossed in the mission and has personal stakes in it, but Maya, more so than anyone, has a practically nonexistent line between her work life and her personal one, and the fact that Chastain sells both keeps you not only curious and engaged, but truly invested.
Taking place over a number of years, most of the supporting cast gets the chance to shine during individual segments. Of the bunch, Jennifer Ehle stands out as Maya’s colleague Jessica, for while you can see her predicament coming from miles away, writer Mark Boal peppers the lead-up with so many intimate details that having the time to think about what’s coming is more effective than the shock value of a surprise. Clarke and Kyle Chandler both give standout performances, too, but they’re in such close proximity to Chastain for the large majority of their material that she tends to steal their spotlight. As for Joel Edgerton and Chris Pratt, their portion of the film is far more about the event taking place than their individual characters, but both still step up to the plate and help turn the raid on bin Laden’s compound into an authentic representation rather than a meaningless action movie set piece.
Boal’s script is exceedingly well balanced as far as action, dialogue, details and emotion are concerned. “Zero Dark Thirty” is detail-heavy to the max. Unless you were following the hunt for bin Laden as carefully as a CIA analyst, there will be tons of new names, places and facts coming at you and while it can be tough to juggle and quite a bit goes in one ear and out the other, you retain more than enough to both have a solid understanding of the chain of events and have room personal details and sentiments.
“Zero Dark Thirty” is an exhausting and conflicting experience. It’s 157 minutes of anxiety, heartache and detailed information that’ll leave you overwhelmed by a multitude of emotions, everything you’d want to feel from such a film and more.