Zero Dark Thirty (2012 Annapurna/Columbia Pictures)
A chronicle of the decade-long hunt for al-Qaeda terrorist leader Osama bin Laden after the September 2001 attacks, and his death at the hands of the Navy S.E.A.L. Team 6 in May 2011.
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow | Produced by Mark Boal, Kathryn Bigelow, Megan Ellison | Written by Mark Boal | Starring Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Joel Edgerton
Yeah, it’s about the pursuit Osama bin Laden. But it’s really about “the mother fucker who found the house.” That “mother fucker,” as she calls herself in a crucial scene, is Maya, a CIA operative who’s been chasing bin Laden since shortly after 9/11. And “the house” is the now famous compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, where bin Laden was holed up for years.
Here’s what Zero Dark Thirty is not: a typical “war” movie. The action takes place in CIA black sites, through detainee interrogations, in the streets of Middle Eastern cities and on far-flung military bases.
As Maya, Jessica Chastain is tough, but not a cartoony, Lara Croft-esque protagonist. She’s not doing somersaults in cut-off shorts while unloading two Glocks on her attackers. Her emotions and vulnerability are never out of reach, but that never gets in the way of Maya’s goal: get bin Laden.
Chastain is one of the few constant threads in this ensemble cast. With so many great performances—Kyle Chandler, Jason Clarke and Jennifer Ehle as field operatives, to name a few—the heft of Zero Dark Thirty is carried by its cast. Mark Strong as Langley-based CIA operative George was my favorite. He made the most of his limited screen time, as did Chris Pratt as a Navy SEAL.
The directing didn’t wow me, but Bigelow deserves credit for making even the office meeting scenes dramatic. It’s easy to find drama in a battlefield scene. But around a conference table with a bunch of stuffy bureaucrats in suits? Bigelow also got it right in establishing a muted tone throughout Zero Dark Thirty. There are no Rambo moments and no tough-guy catch phrases. And, thankfully, no fawning, cloying sycophancy over the Navy SEALS, who performed the nighttime raid on bin Laden’s compound, which is the culmination of Zero Dark Thirty.
No question the SEALS are an elite fighting force and they deserve respect, but Zero Dark Thirty humanizes them, portraying them almost like a football team gearing up for a big game. They’re loose and goofy until they board the helicopters and jump into action.
That final scene, the bin Laden raid, is one of the most intense movie sequences I’ve watched since Saving Private Ryan. No music. No canned drama. It is an up-close view of a raid that was riskier than people realize and closer to being catastrophic than we’d like to admit.
Is there a message in Zero Dark Thirty? Perhaps. There is a certain amorality necessary to to fight a war. Sometimes, the “good guys” do bad things in the name of a cause, whether it’s on a battlefield or while gathering intel from detainees via “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Yes, the film sparks a necessary debate about torture, but Bigelow’s depiction avoids the good guy/bad guy clichés. She simply shows the reality and complexity of fighting a war as a CIA operative. Perhaps that is the takeaway.
RATING: **** (out of 5)