Title: Zero Dark Thirty
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Jennifer Ehle, Kyle Chandler, Mark Strong, Edgar Ramirez, James Gandolfini, Joel Edgerton, Chris Pratt, Reda Kateb
A tunnel-visioned procedural that charts the decade-long pursuit and killing of Osama bin Laden, “Zero Dark Thirty” reteams “The Hurt Locker” director Kathryn Bigelow and her screenwriting partner Mark Boal, to involving effect. A naturalistic film far more darkly gripping than rousing, this is adult filmmaking at something approaching its finest, even if it does unfold at something of an academic remove — a dirge wrapped in grey morality and served up with a pulse-quickening side dish of siege pay-off.
The film unfolds in the nebulous miasma of post-September 11 uncertainty, when the fear of another homeland terrorist attack gripped the heart of nearly every citizen, and certainly every government offical tasked with preventing the same. The search for bin Laden — as also chronicled in Peter Bergen’s “Manhunt,” an excellent read for anyone interested further in the same subject matter — drags on for years, as chiefly funneled through the perspectives and actions of a group of CIA operatives, including Dan (Jason Clarke) and Maya (Jessica Chastain). The former is a hard-charging agent who works interrogations at black sites. He has no qualms about harsh, “enhanced” methods of information extraction, but eventually comes to recognize that the politics are changing. “You don’t want to be the last one holding the dog collar when the Congressional committees come,” he advises.
Maya, on the other hand, has a thin layer of inner conflict regarding means that encases a steely resolve. After bin Laden slips a noose in the mountains of Tora Bora, while other analysts believe he may still be seeking refuge in remote tribal areas, Maya (an amalgamation of a couple real-life characters) pursues a long-shot lead related to a trusted al Qaeda courier, convinced it might hold the key to bin Laden’s whereabouts. When the information finally leads to a break, the film, in its third act, pivots to a telling of the preparation for the Navy Seal Team raid on the terrorist leader’s three-story compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
“Zero Dark Thirty” was shuffled to the back of the annual release deck by distributor Sony after much vocal but needless belly-aching on the far right about the movie’s possible use as a sort of propagandistic cudgel, but it eschews partisan politics; the only glimpse of either President Bush or President Obama is an interview clip of the latter as a candidate, answering a question on “60 Minutes” about torture.
The movie’s most obvious thematic benchmarks are “United 93” and “Black Hawk Down,” whose respective solemnity and gritty, jostling military subjectivity are both evoked in fitful flashes. Mostly, though, the recent film that “Zero Dark Thirty” chiefly recalls is David Fincher’s “Zodiac,” an exhaustively methodical overview of the years-long hunt for the same-named serial killer who stalked the San Francisco Bay area during the late 1960s and early ’70s. Like that work, Bigelow and Boal’s film celebrates, in its own square-jawed way, flinty and obdurate resolve. It is a movie about work — and, yes, the difficult decisions and emotional tolls that the dogged pursuit of a singular goal can bring about, but the work itself first and foremost.
A superlative technical package helps communicate this most directly. Handheld camerawork and naturalistic lighting and production design give “Zero Dark Thirty” a stripped-down, streamlined feeling that’s worlds apart from the brawny, testosteronized action theater of Michael Bay and other directors. This film is anti-pop. Its characterizations are spare, highlighting the narrative and not the individuals involved — so much so that the few scenes of personal, to-scale catharsis feel at times extraordinarily heightened, jarringly out of place, or a unique combination of both. “Enjoy” isn’t the right word to use for an experience like this, but “Zero Dark Thirty” is an involving cinematic act of bearing witness.
Written by: Brent Simon