Starring: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Joel Edgerton, Mark Strong, Chris Pratt, Kyle Chandler, Reda Kateb, Taylor Kinney, Mark Duplass, Frank Grillo, Stephen Dillane, Edgar Ramirez, Jennifer Ehle, James Gandolfini, Harold Perrineau.
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Rating: R (for strong violence including brutal disturbing images, and for language.)
Running Time: 157 Minutes
Release Date: December 19, 2012
Home Video Release Date: TBD
North American Box Office: $1.7 Million
Annapurna Pictures and Columbia Pictures.
Written by: Mark Boal.
Zero Dark Thirty serves as a second entry in director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal’s documenting of the American war machine in a post-9/11 world. Topping their 2009 Best Picture winner The Hurt Locker did not seem possible, but the Bigelow/Boal pairing have netted another classic, a divisive and controversial expose recounting, in amazing detail, the United States government’s efforts in capturing and killing Osama Bin Laden. While debates over the film’s depiction of torture has become an unfortunate adornment on a largely apolitical film, Zero Dark Thirty is as gritty, unflinching, and as unapologetic a political thriller to arrive in years.
Zero Dark Thirty vessels its decade-long manhunt through the perspective of Maya (Jessica Chastain), initially overwhelmed, queasy and unsteady as an assistant of sorts to CIA interrogator Dan (Jason Clarke). Immediately we are privy to the horrors of war-time interrogation techniques, as a detainee (Reda Kateb) is forced to endure countless different sessions, all in escalating intensity, until eventually he offers up the information Dan is charged with obtaining. The decision to toss us directly into this world is jarring and disorienting, and we are immediately as rattled as Maya is in trying to understand the lexicon of the world we are a part of.
Sequenced almost in different acts, Zero Dark Thirty also becomes a dynamic procedural-style tale once Dan departs for a job in Washington and Maya becomes the figurehead leader of the manhunt. Faced with a gender-driven workplace, Maya is consistently finding her successes supplanted or co-opted by her senior officials and those with leverage and power over the operations. Undeterred, Maya continues her work, succeeding for years in fits and starts, becoming increasingly more defiant and necessarily vocal. Bigelow, drawing not so subtle parallels between Maya’s gains and strides and eventual validation as a woman working and conquering in a mostly male environment, binds these different elements together with razor-sharp precision. And Mark Boal’s screenplay is ratcheted down and locked in to keeping us edgy and unsure of what is transpiring.
Just when you feel that Zero Dark Thirty is going to devolve into an office-based, dialogue-dense boardroom thriller, we are reminded that we are operating within a timeline defined by terror – the 2005 London subway bombing, the 2008 Islamabad Marriott Hotel bombing, the 2009 attack which claimed the lives of nine Americans – seven of them C.I.A. Fear populates scene after scene and each time Maya and her team are exposed to, or experience these tragic episodes firsthand, their dedication and steadfast resolve in continuing on is remarkable.
After turning in a number of impressive and wildly diverse performances in several 2011 films, Jessica Chastain stands tall and profound as Maya, in a film which is so expertly balanced on all sides of the ledger. Last year, Chastain was every bit as good as her Oscar-winning co-star Octavia Spencer in The Help and her heartbreaking turn in The Tree Of Life was cited by many, including yours truly, as one of 2011′s Great Performances. Never playing the same type of character twice, Jessica Chastain provides a center point for Zero Dark Thirty. Our confidence grows as hers does and we begin to feel the untenable stress she must navigate through. Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal do not give us all that much to go on in terms of Maya’s background, but Chastain says everything by revealing only a little – and yet still allowing us to see enough of her inner resolve so we connect with how driven, dedicated, and precision-focused she is to see her work through to completion.
When Maya can no longer tolerate the pointless gender-driven obstacles tossed in front of her, she finds her voice. Later, in private, she lets her guard down ever so briefly and allows suppressed emotions to spill out of her in a moment of pure catharsis. Zero Dark Thirty is an extraordinary film, made all the better by having a powerful character guide us through one of the most remarkable stories to come through our cinemas in a long, long time.
With actionable intelligence, Maya is able to pinpoint Bin Laden on the now legendary Abbottabad compound in Pakistan and in these moments, Zero Dark Thirty masterfully dissolves the suspense of the investigation confirming Osama Bin Laden’s location into the actual raid itself, easily one of the most incredible and stunning sequences I have ever experienced in a movie theater. No one could breathe at my screening, reviewers were sitting still and unable to move, struck by tension and anxiety so thick that we all sat in silent contemplation for a few minutes once the film concluded.
When I saw Zero Dark Thirty, I proclaimed it was the best film I had seen since The Hurt Locker and I still hold tightly to that conviction. The film’s stance on torture, the access the Obama Administration provided the filmmakers, and the rhetoric which seems to be conveniently thrown around to dismiss or downplay the film is sadly accelerating, and Zero Dark Thirty will be nit-picked, analyzed, debunked, and fact-checked even more now that the film has finally opened to wider audiences.
This is without question a film I will revisit time and time again. And with all the well-deserved Oscar buzz and awards season banter the film has received, Zero Dark Thirty needs few, if any, awards to retain its standing as a modern day masterpiece.
SHOULD I SEE IT?
- I ranked Zero Dark Thirty as 2012′s Best Film.
- The story of how the United States worked tirelessly for a decade to kill Osama Bin Laden is remarkable and its companion film is equally as incredible.
- Torture debate aside, objectively I have no idea how Mark Boal and Kathryn Bigelow made a film so silent on political bias. Presidents Bush and Obama are featured, but the film does not bend or sway to one political view or the other. In a rancorous political environment, never slipping away from that objectivity is a testament to the skill and precision with which this film was made.
- For some, the subject matter is limiting and I can understand some people being hesitant to watch Zero Dark Thirty, with the outcome obvious, 9/11 still a very real trauma for millions of Americans, and the content of the film nearly always intense.
- An apolitical film has become, naturally, the subject of much political controversy since it was first released in December 2012. The film’s power may be overshadowed by viewers who get caught up in this message or that message. If you are looking for an agenda and not ready to experience the film, you might want to wait awhile before trying to view it.