Among the many successful elements of Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal’s new film ‘Zero Dark Thirty’, the thing I feel they should be most proud of is the fact that this movie lingers in your mind the way a good documentary does. Yes, there’s elements of action and thriller moments, but this is more than anything else a dramatization of real life. The press notes accurately speak of it as a unique kind of movie: “the reported film”. It’s got the relentlessness of a Hollywood manhunt, but the stakes of reality. Everything feels authentic here, and I think it’ll be rather hard to find people who aren’t having to catch their breath during the final half hour of this flick. We may all know the end result of this story, but Bigelow’s direction and Boal’s script fill in the blanks with aplomb. Those looking for a guns blazing story of the United States government finding and killing Osama bin Laden will be disappointed, but those who were hoping for an intense and thoughtful rumination on the more than decade long manhunt will likely be more than satisfied. I’m not sure that it’s as good as ‘The Hurt Locker’, but it’s a very different animal. This is about as close to reality as a dramatized cinema gets, even if its structure is more like a procedural than anything. Oscar voters will have to be accepting of some strong violence at times, but if they like the flick than they will have lots of places to nominate it, and potential winners could include the aforementioned screenplay impeccably done by Boal and Jessica Chastain’s intense lead performance. I was on the edge of my seat minutes in and when the credits rolled my heart was racing and sweat was pouring off me. That’s effective cinema, ladies and gentlemen.
The film begins and ends with emotional releases, resulting in the middle sequence being one incredibly long and relentless chase broken up into a number of segments. Bigelow begins the movie with silence and a black screen that’s soon filled with the sounds of September 11th, 2001. We get about 2 minutes of the horror of 9/11 before jumping 2 years to the brutal interrogation of a terrorist relative of Osama bin Laden. This is also where we meet CIA operative Maya (Chastain). She’s there meeting the officers working to capture bin Laden, including the senior agent (Jason Clarke) leading what can only be described as torture of the terrorist, and one of the few other female members of the task force (Jennifer Ehle). Maya and them (plus another main member of the CIA played by Harold Perrineau) soon begin working together on trying to piece intelligence together for their station chief (Kyle Chandler) on the leader’s whereabouts. Maya is convinced that finding the courier he uses will lead them to him, but it continuously leads to dead ends and roadblocks. All the while, terrorist attacks still continue and trail looks to only be getting colder. Then, some new intelligence is uncovered, and Maya is able to get the decision makers talking about a strike when they find a compound in suburban Pakistan that could very well be holding the man. We all know what happens next, and the final half hour or so is dedicated to an almost second by second depiction of the assault that resulted in the 9/11 mastermind being killed by Seal Team 6. That sequence represents one of the best chunks of American filmmaking this year in my eyes.
Jessica Chastain is all but a lock to get a Best Actress nomination for her role here. The only character we follow through from beginning to end, Chastain is intense and fiery while every so often displaying the humanity buried deep within Maya. We see her sacrifice on her quest to kill bin Laden, and if there’s a character to identify with in the film, it’s her. In many ways this is a similar type of role to the one Jodie Foster rode to an Oscar in ‘The Silence of the Lambs’, and while Maya is hardly as iconic as Clarice Starling, there are elements of the characters that are simpatico to each other. While Chastain is the standout and I loved her performance, I also really liked Jason Clarke here. He plays a man equally at ease joking with fellow agents and prisoners as he is water boarding the latter. While it’s safe to assume Chastain is getting nominated, Clarke has a much harder mountain to climb, but he certainly deserves recognition for playing a fascinating individual. What might hurt him is that he leaves the story for a large chunk of time before returning, but in more of a background role. Jennifer Ehle is the other real notable performer, but she’s not quite in the film enough to leave as big an impact as intended. The aforementioned Kyle Chandler and Harold Perrineau get a bit of screen time, while the rest of the cast includes small but solid turns from Edgar Ramirez, Mark Strong, Joel Edgerton, Chris Pratt, Frank Grillo, Mark Duplass, Scott Adkins, and James Gandolfini. Everyone does their part, with Edgerton and Pratt nearly stealing their scenes as Seals prepping for a mission they never expected to undertake, but Chastain and Clarke are the highlights to me.
I give Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal a ton of credit for pulling this off. Bigelow is somehow able to keep the energy level high during the nearly 2 hours and 40 minutes spent in pursuit of Osama bin Laden. She’s able to chronicle about a decade’s worth of details without losing anyone or watering the material down. I don’t think she’ll be in contention to win the Oscar again, but I could easily see her getting a Best Director nomination again. She certainly deserves it. Even more deserving of a nod is Boal, who could now be the Best Original Screenplay frontrunner. When you look at how much research went into to getting all of the details right and still telling an engaging and powerful story, you just want to stand up and applaud him. The below the line aspects are all great, with the cinematography and film editing really adding to things without ever being too flashy. Especially during the night vision parts of the raid on the compound, Bigelow and her crew are able to give the film a distinct look that never calls attention to itself.
The elephant in the room with this film of course is whether or not you get to see bin Laden killed. I won’t get into specifics, but I will say that the scene is handled amazingly well. There’s not a hint of jingoism or gloating to be had. In fact, some more extreme viewers might wish that Bigelow and Boal had given them a bit more, but I think they did it perfectly.
From the sounds of the Twin Towers to the screams of a torture chamber to the sound of experimental helicopters at Area 51 all the way to the final gunshot during the raid in Pakistan, every element of ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ feels impeccably researched and as close to what happened as we’ll likely ever see on the big screen. We very well might be looking at a Best Picture nominee here folks. I think it might be a bit too off center from what’s expected to win, but it’s definitely one of the better films of the year and a major contender for all sorts of awards. If this is the type of trajectory that Bigelow, Boal, Chastain, and Clarke are on with their careers, then I hope they all work together again real soon. This is a home run…
–Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!