Review By: Gordon K. Smith
ZERO DARK THIRTY begins, and ends, with two of the most riveting sequences I have ever seen, in my lifetime of watching and reviewing films. The opening, which sets the scene for the decade-long manhunt for Osama Bin Laden, is a recap of 9/11 that consists of actual phone calls and voice mails from the two towers against a black screen, something far more heartbreaking and gripping than another replay of the crashing plane footage would have ever been. The climax is a painstakingly meticulous recreation of the Navy SEAL assault on the Bin Laden compound in Pakistan in May 2011, played out in real time or something close to it, that had me on the edge of my seat for 20 minutes. Literally.
Director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal, who won Oscars for THE HURT LOCKER a few years back, have reteamed for a ripped-from-the-headlines movie that is more immediate and urgent than their previous success, and gives us something that HURT LOCKER, and other recent films about the Middle East wars haven’t – a female hero. Jessica Chastain is Maya (based, like most of the characters, on actual people), a CIA operative we first see attending the “aggressive interrogation” (i.e., waterboarding) of an Al Queda suspect with connections to OBL. The film has instantly provoked intense criticism from The White House and other groups for its allegation that info derived from torture led to OBL’s discovery; furthermore, the film takes no moral ground on the subject, it just says, “Yes, it happened, and it provided one of the pieces to the puzzle – along with solid detective work and all kinds of risk-taking”. That, and the reasoning given by the head interrogator (Jason Clarke), that the torturee is still getting off easy, considering he contributed to the murder of 3000 people. These scenes are hard to watch, and it’s scary to consider the possible real-life repercussions that could happen when this film is widely viewed in Arab countries.
For their part, Bigelow and Boal claim their script is based on facts provided by DC and military insiders (presumably not waterboarded), and they go to great detail to show the psychology at work before, during, and after the act, when the subject is “rewarded” for giving it up. As well, these secret sources provided many of the fascinating details – some quite funny, some jolting – of the years-long pursuit of Global Enemy Number One, and the break that came in the way of a courier making mysterious visits to a suburb in Pakistan (the film was mostly shot in Jordan).
We don’t find out a lot about what makes Maya tick, what feeds her obsession (at least until a bit of a revenge motive surfaces halfway through); maybe it’s the mere fact that not only is she a female in the male-dominated world of espionage, but she’s doing it under the additional restrictions placed on women in the region she has to work in. Chastain’s remarkable, focussed performance, which is unhindered by any gratuitous glamor or love interest, forms the rock-solid core for a movie that is never boring at 157 engrossing minutes, despite its shifting locations and myriad of characters (including Kyle Chandler in a role very similar to his role in ARGO). Her final scene, when her humanity finally catches up with her, is powerful stuff.
But before that comes that brilliantly shot, edited and directed climax, incredibly suspenseful even when you know the outcome (which is a bit different that the way it was first explained to us back in 2011). Bigelow is a master of cinematic action, and makes us feel every tense, you’re-there moment right down the spine. It’s shocking to see civilians die during this raid, but, like the torture scenes, it’s done matter-of-factly – anyone willing to live with the world’s most wanted man had to know what they were in for. ZERO DARK THIRTY (military slang for 12:30 am, when the raid started) is troubling, provocative, and technically dazzling – like any great film should be.
By they way, if you go, and you should, PLEASE avoid watching the trailer beforehand – it contains a MAJOR spoiler, even if you do know the history of the events.