Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty” sets the dire, matter of tone from the first frame, opening with a black screen and real calls from the 9-11 tragedy. Once those messages become too much to bear, things immediately move to 2003, where a prisoner is being interrogated in a secret CIA compound. This being the George W. Bush years, the man is tortured in a myriad of methods, including water boarding. Maya (Jessica Chastain), an agent new to the area, can barely hold her stomach. Neither can the audience.
Thus begins the decade long hunt for Osama bin Laden, which Bigelow captures in every frustrating, infuriating detail.
Working from facts that were declassified for the filmmakers (so much so that there have been investigations over whether or not too much information was divulged), “Zero Dark Thirty” follows Maya’s search for the most wanted man in the world. Other people come and go in the search, played by a supporting cast including Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Ehle, Chris Pratt and Joel Edgerton, but it’s Maya’s tenacity that keeps the search alive, even when her superiors think its a lost cause. Chastain, who was nominated for Best Actress for the role, is the heart and soul of the movie, easily shifting between a woman who wants to let her hair down and total bad ass when the situation calls for it. She holds the entire film together with her performance.
Bigelow, whose last film was the terrific, Oscar winning “Hurt Locker,” has so far proven to be the only director who can make a good movie about the United States’ post 9-11 military conflicts. In “Hurt Locker” she examined the thrill of war, whereas “Zero Dark Thirty” plays like a companion piece to that film, looking at the frustration that comes with trying to find one man in an entire war. Shooting in a detached, this is what happened manner, Bigelow avoids making “Zero Dark Thirty” an overly patriotic rah rah USA! USA! propaganda film and she also keeps things from possibly inciting blood lust, especially in the torture scenes.
Much has been made about whether or not “Zero Dark Thirty” is pro torture. It’s not. The torture scenes are shot in a very matter of fact manner, much like the rest of the film. Torture is inhumane, and the movie doesn’t try to sway anyone’s opinion on that. Once 2008 rolls around and Barack Obama takes office, characters do complain about not being able to use torture techniques to get information anymore, but then again, torture is a pretty effective way to get an enemy to talk, so of course people who used it in the past would miss it when its gone.
“Zero Dark Thirty” plays out a lot like a Tom Clancy film. Maya is very much an analyst in the Jack Ryan mold, utilizing technology and smarts to hunt down her target, even when the enemy is closing in on her. It’s almost like a real life “Hunt for Red October,” only Maya has to convince people she’s found bin Laden instead of a Russian submarine captain who wants to defect. It’s fascinating.
Everyone knows how the hunt for bin Laden ends, but not many know the blood, sweat and tears that culminated in that historic raid by Seal Team Six on May 1, 2011. “Zero Dark Thirty” relishes in the thrill of the hunt, making it one of the best films of 2012. It is not to be missed.