Zero Dark Thirty—military speak for 12:30am—is the story about the long hunt for Osama Bin Laden, carried out by CIA agents and finished by Navy SEALs.
Spoiler alert: We got him.
But that goes to the problem director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal faced with this project, once SEAL Team Six wrote their ending for them: How do you keep an audience interested now?
Well, if you’re Bigelow and Boal you dig in, finding your own special entry point. For Bigelow, it’s a portrait of the kind of tough woman she used to specialize in; for Boal, it’s the sort of embedded, info-crammed journalism he sprang from.
So from him, we get a lot of details, studded with acronyms but occasionally a little scant on context and explanation. (If you have trouble telling who some of these people are working for, well, don’t feel alone.)
But from her, we get what Bigelow has always done best, as she focuses on men under fire (The Hurt Locker, K-19: The Widowmaker) and women working twice as hard to survive in that male world (Blue Steel, Strange Days).
And her style carries along Boal’s sometimes dense plotting.
So, too, do the performances. There are some interesting characters around the edges here. Like Jason Clarke as the first U.S. interrogator we meet, and one very calmly brutal guy. Or Joel Edgerton as a Navy SEAL leader, the actor finally getting to use some of his quiet charisma.
But driving this movie is Jessica Chastain as Maya, the CIA analyst who becomes convinced early that the way to Bin Laden is through his most trusted courier. And who redoubles her efforts once Al Qaeda’s attacks begin to strike even closer to home.
Chastain is a chameleon of an actor, who just last year moved easily from the fluttery bombshell of The Help to the worried wife of Take Shelter. But she also excels at steely determination, too—something she also showed as the Israeli assassin in The Debt, and as the stoic military wife in Coriolanus.
She’s determined here, and the part also gives her a chance to do something the movies really haven’t before—really lose it, eyes flashing, lips spitting out threats and curses. It’s a performance with a lot of colors, and angles, and is guaranteed to be remembered come awards time. Maya’s a real character, all right.
But is she a real person? Although this story is based on firsthand accounts (and facts so accurate it drew criticism from some politicians), it’s hard to believe that the hunt for Bin Laden really came down to one junior agent who refused to give up when others were willing to move on.
And the scenes of her taking on her superiors (including the director of the CIA) and angrily writing missed deadlines on the glass walls of their offices? Good drama, but probably pretty sketchy as far as typical career-agent behavior goes.
But other things feel very right, and very honest.
The scenes of the interrogations? Brutal, but presented without judgment, which has already offended some critics, who are calling the film pro-torture (it’s not—it’s pro-fact). The political decisions at home? As full of worry and bravado and second-guessing as you’d imagine.
And then we move on to the actual assault, led by Edgerton, and we get the Bigelow action fans remember from entertainments like Near Dark and Point Break—adrenaline-rushed sequences shot close up and cleanly edited. (And, in this case, backed by Alexandre Desplat’s classic suspense score, which sounds a little like non-Bond John Barry).
The long road to that sequence, which takes up the movie’s last half hour, is sometimes rocky. It’s probably a mistake, in the midst of all these shape-shifting actors, to cast someone as distinctive as James Gandolfini in a small part. His celebrity takes you out of the movie’s realism—just as Boal’s overly detailed realism sometimes slows down the drama.
But then we get on those copters, heading into Pakistan. And the art of Zero Dark Thirty—and of Kathryn Bigelow—is that we’re suddenly on edge, worrying, wondering if somehow this time around, the story is really going to end a different way.
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