Zero Dark Thirty

I’ve forever been fascinated by Kathryn Bigelow’s career. For two decades she seemed to succeed in a man’s business making “manly” products. But more than that, her projects were also so varied and striking. There’s the cult favorite and pre-Twilight tween monster movie that she made in 1987, Near Dark. Then there’s the equally beloved and scrutinized Point Break which brought with it a self-aware snark so high that it made it almost impossible for me not to fall in love with (plus Patrick Swayze and surfing). Her movies always seemed closer to Michael Bay than Penny Marshall, and it all came to a head when she became the first female ever to win the Best Director Oscar for her 2009 masterpiece The Hurt Locker. The media coronation of her seemed a bit strange, cause she always seemed more interested in being a great action filmmaker than ‘The Great Female Director’. But it was a great story, either way.

And that’s the prelude that leads to her latest film, Zero Dark Thirty, which has the audacious bravura of being a movie about the finding and killing of American Enemy Number One, Osama bin Laden. It occurs to me that these are the first two films that Bigelow has made (this and Hurt Locker, that is) that are so stylistically and narratively similar. It has the same screenwriter as Hurt Locker (Best Original Screenplay winner and Bigelow beau, Mark Boal), and is shot with the same immediate, handheld heavy style. This struck me because her Oscar win seems to have shifted Bigelow from the dependable action director, to a more trusted storyteller who chooses what story she wants to tell and how she wants to tell it. Basically, she’s gone from director-for-hire to auteur, and THAT is a much more cataclysmic achievement for a female director (especially considering this film’s budget) than that Oscar win.

And it helps that Zero Dark Thirty is great. The movie, which is said to be “based on first hand knowledge” according to a card at the beginning of the film, tracks its narrative around Maya (Jessica Chastain), a CIA agent sent to Pakistan to help in the Bin Laden chase. When she arrives in 2003, she seems slightly rattled by the tactics used in the US’s “detainee program”, which is led by her hard-nosed colleague, Dan (Jason Clarke). Within a few days, she sees prisoners waterboarded, shoved in small boxes and disrobed in humiliating fashion (it’s always hard to see how the sausage is made). This “program” is what got this branch of the CIA most of its much desired secrets. After all, we’ve learned how close-to-vest Al Queda can be, and it took otherworldly measures to get those to speak up. But most of these guys are small potatoes, little pieces hopefully leading to the completed project which is famed Al Queda head, Osama Bin Laden.

As her experience grows, Maya’s timid nature quickly sheds. We learn often that she has an aggressive knack for getting things done her way – and we also learn that it’s usually the right way. Along with Dan, she works with a handful of other CIA operatives, who navigate through the Al Queda underground trying to find any trace of Al Queda leaders. They have a board filled with photographs of faces, all displaying a hierarchy that leads to Osama Bin Laden. Everything must be done through mirrors, torturing individuals for information that gets them only inches closer to the one that they want. As years go by, government heads get less and less patient, and the discovery of prisoner misconduct leads to the eradication of the “detainee program”. Having to work under new rules, Maya and her crew continue to fight for the information necessary to get their man.

The film opens with disturbing 911 call tidbits from 9/11 and then churns through the ten-year manhunt that led to the finding and killing of Bin Laden. But the film blurs through this time, while still maintaining an attention to detail that makes a two-and-a-half hour movie fly by. (MINI RANT: speaking of which, does anybody have an answer for why movies are so goddamned long this year? Even Silver Linings Playbook spilled over two hours. Jeez.) Like Hurt LockerZero Dark Thirty dedicates a whole lot of time focusing on basic military procedure and covert strategy, to the point where it makes the audience comfortable with the necessary vocabulary. Granted, this film does not have the fascinating central character that Hurt Locker has (including a knock-out performance from Jeremy Renner), and doesn’t always hold the arresting, nearly addictive watchability (for lack of a better – or actual – word) of the previous film.

I don’t mean to put this all on Chastain, since considering all of the limitations (the screenplay not only supplies her with no backstory, but steps away from her for long stretches of time) she is actually fantastic in the role, creating a storyline and a past with just her painful, anxious expressions. It’s pretty brilliant, when you think about it, how Chastain maneuvers around the emotional landmines of Maya, whose sterile, serious demeanor seems to cloud all other aspects of her life to a point that doesn’t even seem enjoyable (after all, is hunting a man even supposed to be enjoyable?). There comes a significant moment in the film where the Bin Laden search becomes personal for her, and once that’s the case, there is no way that she will give up on it – despite the lack of vocal support. The finding of Bin Laden was obviously done by more than just one woman, but this woman in this movie, could probably get anything done.

The film has a bevy of great supporting performances around Chastain. Clarke brings a charisma to his brutish torturer that makes his scenes a little less wincing. As another member of the CIA crew, and the only other female member, Jennifer Ehle brings some more ladylike aggression to balance out Chastain’s heavily masculined procedures. Mark Strong, as the CIA leader of the Osama chase, brings his usual excellence, showing a great balance of power and vulnerability that is the very definition of being a leader. And as members of the famed Seal Team Six, Joel Edgerton and Chris Pratt do not arrive till very late in the movie, but provide an energy and personality to a very long and precise final act (which just so happens to be the best moments of the film).

Considering the similarity in style, setting and subject matter, it’s hard to separate Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty. That being said, Hurt Locker is by far the superior film. It was more singularly focused and overall, just seemed to be a less processed product (the parade of famous actors for cameos in Zero Dark was what particularly stuck out in this department). Zero Dark Thirty is a showcase of stunning acting, wonderful filmmaking, as well as precise, smart writing. But it doesn’t possess the biting, nearly sweltering suspense of the 2009 film, because we already know the ending. We also never really get that close to Maya, at least I never got close enough to really care about her as a person. Perhaps that doesn’t matter. It still felt great to watch the Seals sweep in at the end and complete the mission, but that’s already built into my psyche as an American who experienced 9/11.

Don’t get me wrong, Zero Dark Thirty is one of the best movies of 2012, which is ironic since most people (including me) won’t see it till 2013. It fittingly completes a year in which there were not only great American films, but great films that seemed specifically American. It’s hard not to watch the final act of this movie and not feel proud of the accomplishment, even if the roads that were taken to get there were not always pretty, or even in some cases, legal. But this is not a perfect movie. Its spirals and spins over several characters, but doesn’t hold any specific regard or attention for any of them. With the exception of its attention on Chastain’s Maya, it strikingly resembles 2006’s United 93, which utilized nameless, ensemble acting to tell the story of one of the hijacked planes of 9/11. All of this is probably on purpose, and its just a filmmaking choice I’m not 100% on board with. After all, I’m sure Bigelow finds a whole lot more emotion and relation to Maya then, say, I would. They both know a lot about succeeding in a male-dominated profession.


Directed by Kathryn Bigelow