'Zero Dark Thirty'
Imagine a thousand threads tangled across countless miles, intersecting and overlapping until each was indistinguishable from the other. Now imagine someone grabbing one single thread and pulling it free from the others, until you can see it clearly from the start to the very finish.
That’s something like what director Kathryn Bigelow and writer/producer Mark Boal have accomplished with Zero Dark Thirty, a film that manages to wrench the hunt for Osama bin Laden away from our collective jumbled opinions about the “war on terror” and present it, instead, as a relentless, precise and altogether surprising story. It's a thriller that grippingly depicts the self-professed “greatest manhunt in history.”
The opening scene, an unblinking example of “enhanced interrogation” (aka torture), resets our expectations for a glossy Hollywood affair immediately. There is no ominous music. No lengthy speeches. No guilt-ridden characters. Just CIA workers desperate for anything like progress. The docu-drama approach grounds the story immediately, offering a behind-the-scenes glimpse of a frustrated team trying to figure out where the next 9/11 might be coming from.
And herein lies one of the strongest decisions Bigelow and Boal have made: to tell the story from the point of view not of the “higher ups” or decision makers, but of the everyday workers in the field, suffering in a kind of Sisyphean limbo, never sure which haystack they should be combing for a needle. The story doesn’t detour to see any final decisions being made in the White House—instead, it lingers on mid-level officers methodically narrowing the possibilities down. The singular commitment to keep the story centered on the working stiffs provides a hypnotic immersion. It puts us in the fluorescent-lit trenches and doesn’t give us the chance to escape.
The first half plays out in Pakistan, following a group of American intelligence officers trying to survive the violence of both terrorism and political elections. The performances are admirably restrained, including Jason Clarke’s affably brutal interrogator “Dan,” easily the most natural performance. But the film finds its true center in new-to-the-field “Maya,” a powerful turn by Jessica Chastain, who plays in a boy-dominated world with James Cagney-level directness. Maya doesn’t flinch from the savagery around her. Instead, she becomes the aggressor in her increasingly personal quest to bring bin Laden down, showing us a character whose single-minded devotion dwarfs the religious conviction of her detainees.
Just as the film threatens to lose steam, the second half shifts the action to Maya & Company, now working from offices in Langley. Here is where Chastain (and the film) really shines, as Maya relentlessly strains against the stubborn, overly cautious bureaucracy. The script gives her several moments to hit it out of the park, and she nails them. Each of her successive bosses winds up with the same muted expression of shock, horror and just a little pleasure at her unshakeable conviction that she has found a way to bin Laden.
Joining the ranks of Lincoln and Argo this year as a movie whose ending is already a matter of public record, Zero Dark Thirty loses none of its power or tension as it builds to the climactic raid. Here, more than any other scene, we feel Bigelow’s skillful precision that far exceeds any of her other work. What could have become a traditional shootout becomes something deeply visceral in its intentional sense of realism. Instead of the “quick strike” of our fantasies, we are treated to the agonizingly slow, methodical reality that ratchets the tension with every passing moment. Cinematographer Greig Fraser should be commended for delivering some striking images here, often using what appears to be a single light source. It avoids the intentionally ugly photography of other war films without ever violating the natural feel.
As a whole, Zero Dark Thirty offers little in the way of emotional resonance or character arcs or theme. It's content to engage us intellectually, to focus on communicating What Happened. Of course, it’s hard not to feel like we are missing something in the story. Like a camera at a sporting event trained only on one player, we see the eventual touchdown, but we lose the wider context of the whole play. Far from being an oversight, however, this feels like a deliberate choice. The filmmakers aren’t interested in telling us if torture led to bin Laden, only that torture happened. They aren’t interested in showing us how the world reacted, only how a small, devoted team did.
An objective viewpoint doesn’t take time to weigh moral or social issues; it leaves all questions and discussions for the viewers to take up afterward. It’s offers instead a relentlessness of purpose that mirrors Maya’s obsessive quest—and it’s tempting not to view Bigelow in Maya’s shoes: a determined woman in a “man’s world,” pushing aside all other concerns in an effort to accomplish something extraordinary.