Title: Zero Dark Thirty
Genre(s): Drama, History, Thriller
Director(s): Kathryn Bigelow
Release Year: 2012
Few events in recent memory have caused as much public and media uproar as the day a raid was conducted on Osama Bin Laden’s secret compound, resulting in the death of the most prominent target in over a decade; if anything, it effectively showcased the sheer power a singular person could have over an entire population. While a film adaptation of the hunt was already underway, courtesy of Oscar-winning team Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal, this new change in facts led to inevitable changes as well as an entirely new conclusion, effectively rewriting the film. As politically driven as its subject matter is however, it’s relieving then that Zero Dark Thirty rarely feels like anything other than a thoroughly tense thriller; as familiar as the events depicted in the film may feel, Bigelow and Boal have managed to plot out a gripping and thought-provoking drama around these dates, successfully dramatizing a decade long manhunt. It’s unfortunate then that politics had to interfere with the film’s release, leading to an unwarranted and baseless case of public shunning, nullifying its chances of taking home any top awards, if any. Anything but a piece of propaganda, Zero Dark Thirty stands tall as one of 2012’s most important film.
Chronicling the decade-long manhunt through a series of important dates, Zero Dark Thirty drops us into the muck of things; we hear the distressed voices of those within the World Trade Center while being plummeted into darkness, without a visual to accompany any of it. What follows is a series of uncomfortable interrogation sequences, punctuated by torturous methods and agonized screams. Here, we’re introduced to Maya (Jessica Chastain), a woman who initially appears to show reluctance and yet thrives on her persistence to find the man responsible. Even when faced with dead ends and loosely plotted leads, this persistence drives her to waking hours, attempting to find the slightest connections within this minefield of clues. Though numerous tragedies begin to pile up and hope to find their target, along with morale, begin to sharply dwindle, Maya never lets it impede her work, never committing to anything other than the mission. When she’s finally presented with the chance to take out her supposed target by her superiors nearly 10 years later, Maya, without flinching (and visibly sleep deprived), accepts her mission; it quite literally becomes the chance of a lifetime. While The Hurt Locker focused on a bomb defuser’s addiction to his job, being thrust into life-threatening situations and the conflicting thoughts that ran through his mind in the midst of it all, Zero Dark Thirty takes a more detached angle while utilizing a similar character thematic. Maya, and many of the other characters for that matter, aren’t exceptionally well-developed, or even very likable characters but then again, they never have to be; by skewing this protagonistic angle so familiar in Hollywood cinema, Boal’s script ends up placing the audience in a jury, letting them see the evidence themselves without the presence of a lawyer tricking or manipulating them.
As tightly woven as its script is, Zero Dark Thirty‘s greatest asset is without a doubt its high caliber array of performances. Just about everyone here is convincingly brought to life, with Jessica Chastain delivering yet another award-worthy turn. Exhibiting a ruthless, almost mechanical personality harbored within a fatigued, seemingly frail exterior, Maya’s insistence on capturing Osama Bin Laden becomes her strength as well as her tragic flaw; in giving a cold, emotionally repressed performance, Chastain presents us with one of the most conflicted leads of the year, whose pitiful consequences outdo her ambitions. The film also features great work from the likes of James Gandolfini (who’s much less annoying here than he was in Killing Them Softly), Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler of Friday Night Lights and Argo fame, Mark Strong, and even Mark Duplass. Yes, THAT Mark Duplass. The presence of these stars never distracts from the bigger picture however, with each rising up to the task and delivering on their respective roles. Mark Strong is particularly noteworthy, namely for the fact that he, for once, isn’t portraying an unhinged villain and manages to hide his accent quite well.
On a technical note, Zero Dark Thirty holds up its end of the bargain, featuring tight editing and a great attention to aural details, with every tremor having the right sense of surprise and thud. The film’s numerous and always sudden explosions never lose their impact or their jolting sense of dread, the sound design working to great lengths to ensure their authenticity without ever overdoing it. The film’s finale, the quiet and suspenseful assault on Bin Laden’s compound, is a technical marvel, making impressive use of ambient noise and in turn ramping up the tension to nearly unbearable levels despite a known outcome. It’s a stunning showcase of Bigelow’s skill behind the camera, confidently directing an action scene and turning it into something much more substantial. Much like The Hurt Locker before it, Zero Dark Thirty isn’t about presenting a photogenic portrait of a real event, employing the same shaky-cam aesthetic found in the former to bring immediacy to the material. It worked well in her previous film and succeeds just as much here, working as a window into the grim, step-by-step reality. The film’s pacing never lets up either, managing to compress 10 years into a little under 160 minutes and without sacrificing quality or wasting a second. It’s one of two great films William Goldernberg has personally shaped this year, the other being Oscar-winner Argo, both of which truly rely on his work.
Of course, any example of honest and blunt free speech is bound to get attacked or misconstrued obtusely by politics, especially when dealing with such a sensitive topic. While it’s understandable that some would feel uneasy and even a bit insulted by the film’s timeliness and concept (the idea of a Bin Laden movie so soon after his murder does seem like a lot), the allegations pointed at Zero Dark Thirty are not only baseless but also entirely a work of fabrication. Accusing a film like this of glorifying torture, despite the fact that torture was used in interrogating various Al Qaeda leads and that it’s not only showcased to the disdain of many but also proves futile at times, proves this stunt to be little more than a laughably unsubtle case of damage control. Don’t listen to politics; Zero Dark Thirty isn’t the flag-waving, dumbed-down tale of America’s victory over Al Qaeda (that would be Act of Valor). On the contrary, Bigelow and Boal have crafted a bold piece of thought-provoking cinema, challenging the viewer to re-assess whether the ends truly justify the means, and at what cost. Needless to say, Zero Dark Thirty must be seen to be believed.