Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Zero Dark Thirty

ZERO DARK THIRTY (Kathryn Bigelow, 2012)

As the years after the 9/11 attack pass, information regarding the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden becomes less frequent.  The push to find him also diminishes, but CIA investigator Maya (Jessica Chastain), who is first seen at a black ops interrogation site in Pakistan in 2003, refuses to give up the search.  She believes that if they can find a specific al-Qaeda courier known to many terrorists, they will find the organization’s leader.  Nearly a decade after the hunt began, intelligence work suggests that bin Laden could be hiding in a compound in Abbottabad.  No direct confirmation can be made that he is there, but Maya insists that this is the place.      

ZERO DARK THIRTY is based on first-hand accounts of actual events.  While there isn’t a person who will see it who doesn’t know how the film will turn out, how the characters go about their jobs can be plenty surprising.  As with all fact-based films, the assumption must be made that liberties have been taken with the true story for the sake of narrative clarity, creative license, and, especially in this case, the protection of confidential documents.  

ZERO DARK THIRTY is concerned with the process, not the characters.  The real-life inspiration for Maya played an important role, but this mission was far bigger than any one person.  Director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal go into painstaking detail depicting the dead ends, setbacks, breakthroughs, and direct action taken that culminated with bringing bin Laden to justice.  The filmmakers set a business-like tone, which is not to say that the work isn’t personal for the agents.  Clearly it is but letting emotion cloud judgment does not help to achieve their goal.
The no-nonsense action scenes crackle with tension despite unfolding as though these are rather common, albeit highly dangerous, assignments.  The climactic raid on the Abbottabad compound is the standout sequence, yet what is most remarkable is how small it feels.  The same goes for other scenes that could have come straight out of any number of thrillers, like the trailing of the man believed to be the courier.  Bigelow’s great achievement is stripping down the action from the exaggerated theatrics in movies and television shows so the missions feel no less exciting and immediate. 

In an extraordinary performance Chastain projects a tough exterior as Maya.  Resolute in her purpose and unyielding in her actions, Maya can appear closed off as she invests every fiber of her being to completing the job.  Practically nothing is known about her life outside work--the same goes for her co-workers--but with few words Chastain says volumes about the core of this character through the quiet intensity with which she pursues her objective and responds to developments.  When she permits more outward displays, the effect is as bracing as a slap to the face.

Those responsible for finding and killing bin Laden are hailed, but Bigelow resists making ZERO DARK THIRTY into a rah-rah patriotic movie.  The matter-of-fact manner in which she handles this subject feels like the only appropriate way.  Pride can be felt in achieving a hard-fought result.  Satisfaction is earned in eliminating an enemy; however, as the film’s identifying figure expresses, relief in the moment cannot ease past wounds, especially as the larger undertaking still goes on unresolved.

Grade: A

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