‘Zero Dark Thirty’ (2012) Movie Review

Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty
Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty
Photo: Columbia Pictures

Condensing a ten-year manhunt down to 157 minutes is impossible, and yet, with Zero Dark Thirty, director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal have managed to come as close as possible without turning the story into a series of political talking points, no matter how hard some will try to do so.

Zero Dark Thirty is a cold, calculated, compelling and intensely satisfying procedural where the story and its central character are more than enough to keep you engaged without overwrought dramatic flourishes. The mere idea of opening the film with an extended torture scene, as we are first introduced to the story’s central character, Maya (Jessica Chastain), is enough to let us know the stakes involved.

Maya stands in the background as her CIA colleague (Jason Clarke) interrogates an Arab prisoner using what have been referred to as “enhanced interrogation techniques” — you are probably more familiar with terms such as sleep-deprivation and water-boarding.

These scenes are not easy to handle and a debate has already begun as to whether the film suggests these “enhanced interrogation techniques” resulted in the revelation of vital information that led to the discovery of Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts.

The conversation regarding torture is an important one, and one I would suggest is worth having and, if anything, it’s a good thing the film has inspired such conversation. However, I’ve already offered my interpretation on the subject and will leave it at that. After all, Bigelow and Boal have done their very best to allow history (albeit a condensed version) to tell the story, rather than injecting their own opinion into the narrative and, seeing how this is a movie review, I’ll get back to it.

Sometimes it’s hard to decide whether your reaction to a performance is due to the character being portrayed or the performance turned in by the actor. Chastain strikes a perfect balance, allowing the character and situation to dictate the performance, rather than the other way around.

We are given very little background on Maya and the fact Bigelow is so strict in the telling of the story, you’d think there would be no avenue to get to know her. Yet, through subtle reactions and a growing determination, Maya’s character comes into focus.

Maya finds herself in unfamiliar waters as her search for bin Laden has put her life, career and sanity in jeopardy. She’s lost friends to this search and as the pieces begin to fall into place you find yourself reacting right alongside her, be it frustration, sadness, determination, anticipation or relief. The connection to her character is not through her background, but through the human condition and an understanding of what’s at stake.

The fact Chastain is able to portray Maya in such a way that we can connect to a character in a situation as impossible as the one she faces says more than anything else I can come up with for what makes her contribution to the film so great.

Chastain is surrounded by equally strong performances such as small contributions from Kyle Chandler, James Gandolfini, Mark Strong and Jennifer Ehle as well as brief appearances from Joel Edgerton and Chris Pratt as part of the SEAL team that comprises the film’s final 40 minutes. But Jason Clarke as Maya’s CIA colleague, Dan, stands out as a character worth examining.

To the point of not knowing much about Maya’s background, it’s interesting to look at Dan who we first see torturing a detainee, but about midway through the film he’s wearing a white button-up and slacks and working out of Washington. We know whose side he’s on, but given how little we know of Maya, by comparison the additional knowledge we have of Dan creates a conflicted understanding of him as the story plays on, and makes you wonder what other players in this story come from the same background and we just don’t know it.

How much are you willing to overlook and forget what Dan has done? Do you agree with his tactics? Do you look at him any differently after you’ve seen him look in the face of a man — beaten and bloodied — and say, “If you lie to me, I hurt you,” compared to the man you see later on pushing papers? Again, Bigelow doesn’t build a background for these characters because she realizes the details along the way are more than enough to keep the mind reeling.

The attention to detail, the third-party approach to the narrative and the overall feeling that Bigelow has somehow managed to capture the essence of the hunt for bin Laden and the myriad of intelligence operatives necessary to accomplish the goal is staggering. While anyone that watches this should, at the very least, know, Zero Dark Thirty only scratches the surface of all that was involved in this mission, but to manage to keep an audience engaged for the entire running time involves a lot of confidence in what you’re working with and an understanding this was a mission in which we were all invested.

The end result is a film in which you are going to be worn out once you get to the end. You’re either going to be riding an emotional high as the film builds to its sobering conclusion or you’re going to be beaten down by the extended investigation that leads to those final moments. Either way, I expect most audience members will walk out with a larger interest in all the hunt for Osama bin Laden involved — the good, bad and deplorable — and want to learn more as a film covering so much ground can only be so specific. For a dramatic retelling of one of the most highly publicized manhunts ever, that is truly saying something.

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