NOTE: The historical accuracy (or lack there of) of Zero Dark Thirty played no part in my evaluation of this film. Nor did the film's supposed stance on torture which has been a hot topic of late. It is not, in my estimation, a film's job to tell THE story as much as it is to tell A story and neither is it my job to judge it based on how closely it follows the real events. My concern is whether or not the movie itself is good and in this case, the answer is a resounding "Yes!" of the highest order. Making a movie about the tracking and killing of Osama bin Laden could have been a rather easy endeavor. Just about anyone could have made that movie and turned it into a blockbuster sort of film that would have brought people to the theater even if the quality was low. Turning that movie into an award-winning, dramatic spectacle, though, was quite a tall order. When virtually the entire audience knows the ins and outs of your story right on up to its conclusion, it can be very difficult to create drama and intrigue that doesn’t seem false. Katheryn Bigelow’s ability to do just that takes Zero Dark Thirty over the top and propels it into the discussion for best of the year.
Zero Dark Thirty begins two years after the bombing of the World Trade Center with the brutal torture of an al-Qaeda prisoner at the hands of CIA interrogation expert Dan (Jason Clarke) and a young special agent named Maya (Jessica Chastain). The information gathered through the interrogation leads Maya on an eight year quest with only one goal in mind: the location and apprehension, by whatever means necessary, of Osama bin Laden. This process proves more difficult than finding the proverbial needle in a haystack and costs Maya a great deal throughout her time on the case but the effort is finally justified on May 2, 2011 when SEAL Team 6 is sent in to take down America’s number one adversary.
Zero Dark Thirty opens with a black screen backed by a 911 call from the World Trade Center on 9/11, a choice that sets the tone for what is to follow in no uncertain terms. To call this movie “intense” would require a new definition for the word. It’s more like “mega-intense” or “my-blood-pressure-will-never-recover-intense.” Bigelow throws the audience into the torture sequence that made me squirm not for its gratuitous depiction but for its realism. The man being interrogated is BROKEN and that hits home fast and hard. From there, the pace slows at times but the tense urgency of that opening scene never wanes, leaving you on the edge of your seat even when there’s virtually nothing happening. And if you do make the mistake of putting your guard down, Bigelow is quick to comeback with an action sequence that reminds you of this film’s stakes. Perhaps the finest moment is in the final scene in which SEAL Team 6 invade bin Laden’s compound. The sequence takes over 27 minutes to unfold and even though I knew exactly what was going to happen, Bigelow still drove the moment home with a quiet yet furious injection of natural adrenaline that kept my pulse up throughout.
What really sets Zero Dark Thirty apart, however, is the performance of its lead. I don’t know who discovered Jessica Chastain and gave her the big break she needed but that person should be given a large sum of money and some sort of medal. To think that Chastain could go from completely unknown to the woman who gave the year’s best performance (which is what I would call this portrayal) in less than 18 months is a true Hollywood success story if ever there was one. Maya is an awesome and complex character to begin with (a credit to Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal) but Chastain takes that character and runs with it, creating a persona that serves as the driving force behind the entire movie. Chastain shows Maya to be a brash, single-minded personality and in the wrong hands the character could have EASILY become abrasive and obnoxious. Instead, Maya is truly dynamic and begs to be embraced by the audience.
It goes much further than this, though; it isn’t enough for Maya to be strong and likeable. Bigelow puts the entire film on the shoulders of Maya and Chastain by making her the in-movie representation of the audience and moreover, the American people. Chastain is our window into the hunt for bin Laden and the emotions that she goes through are, I believe, symbolic of the ones the audience has gone through over the last decade. Zero Dark Thirty is built with remarkably strong beams in the form of terrific writing, an engrossing and familiar story, and outstanding supporting work from a strong cast of actors (most particularly Jason Clarke who should receive award attention for his role), not to mention a host of technical attributes that serve to heighten the experience. But Chastain is the load-bearing beam of the film and even a great performance might have left the film wanting. Well, it isn’t great but instead a powerhouse portrayal that reverberates with far more emotion than I expected to find going in. The relief that Chastain exhibits in the closing moments washes over the audience in a way that can only be described as surreal and, for me, it is this final shot that solidifies Chastain’s performance as the best of the year and Zero Dark Thirty as one of the more iconic films of the last decade.
Zero Dark Thirty Director: Kathryn Bigelow Cast: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Chris Pratt, Joel Edgerton Rated: R (language, violence, brutal torture sequences, and all around intensity) Recommended For: Mature audiences who don’t have heart issues