Zero Dark Thirty | Director Kathryn Bigelow | Score: 7.7
The film opens black. A wash of noise rises up: TV news reports, frantic 911 calls, military and emergency radio toggling. At first it’s hard to pinpoint what we’re listening to, but soon enough, we catch something about planes crashing and towers falling and it’s made clear we’ve begun this hunt-for-Bin-Laden film with the very reason the U.S. was so desperate to bring him to justice in the first place: perhaps the worst breach of domestic safety in the modern era of the country.
This cacophony of noise motif appears again and again in director Kathryn Bigelow’s crushing new fact-based drama: There are meetings between CIA field agents and high-ranking military personnel as they chatter over one another, going back and forth with possible leads and theories as to where and how to find the U.S.’ top priority; there are brutal interrogation and torture scenes from Pakistan in the immediate aftermath of the fallen towers, the subjects humiliated, beaten, half-drowned and stuffed into small wooden boxes; and there is the buzz of political game-playing between Bin Laden point agent Maya (Jessica Chastain) and her frustrated Middle Eastern CIA station chief (Kyle Chandler), and other government officials desperate to find Bin Laden, but terrified of sticking their necks out for an unlikely hunch.
As with Jeremy Renner’s Sgt. James from Bigelow’s previous film, the Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker, we don’t know much of anything about Maya’s personal life — when she has dinner with a fellow operative at a Middle-Eastern Mariott midway through the film, she confesses that she doesn’t really socialize and has no other purpose other than to track down their target — but this film hardly concerns itself with direct personal interaction or unnecessary social politics. It’s essentially a detailed procedural, a well-documented dramatization of just how the CIA managed to finally get their man, and it remains nearly as on point and intractable on that subject as its fiery female protagonist.
Devoid of the touchy-feely mode of narrative drive and obvious character arcs, what we have instead is a giant, international game of manhunt, with Al Qaeda throwing as many C-4 spitballs as it can against the agency, whom, in turn, becomes more and more desperate to find their top priority, even as it begins to feel more and more hopeless that they ever will. What Bigelow’s methodical style dispenses with are the usual platitudes and relationship concerns that stock a film with much of its weight and running time. It’s an adult kind of a concept, an action movie for grown-ups, with a climax that is every bit as thrilling and draining as any fictionalized shoot-em-up, only without the cornball bromides that usually accompany what is, fundamentally, a war picture. With its relentless focus and refusal to overdramatize its material, it makes other, less realistic, entries of the genre — take “Homeland” for example — seem like a silly Disney cartoon.
This approach also puts a fair amount of pressure on the film’s cast — stripped away of many of the usual histrionic, attention-grabbing moments, the actors instead have to climb into the skin of their characters in a more organic way. In other words, it’s not the kind of ego-affirming vehicle in which many of our biggest stars would prefer to shine. True, for the right kind of actor, it’s a most welcome sort of blessing — think Renner in Locker — but you have to act from a different place than just loosing your jaw and opening your tear ducts.
In this way, Chastain is a marvel. Tight without being fastidious, thoroughly obsessed without the long soliloquys to define the nature of her obsession, she must convey everything about her character in short scene snapshots, and in the way she plays off of her colleagues, be they commanders or comrades-as-arms (her relationship with a warm and intelligent female agent played by Jennifer Ehle is by far the closest we ever get to seeing anything behind Maya’s innate focus and high-level security clearance).
Conversely, none of this is at all the point of the film. In keeping the rhetoric down to a minimum, it stretches its narrative from country to country, high-pointing many of the continued terrorist attacks around the world, covering years of our lives with little more than another bomb blast and a new gaping hole in the earth. Maya doesn’t evolve so much as bear closer and closer down, keeping the last vestiges of an almost forgotten trail warm while the rest of the CIA — if not the world — try to move on with their lives.
In a different director’s hands, she could have been another in the impressive line of outspoken female truth-seekers, from Karen Silkwood to Erin Brockovich, forgoing all else but her quarry — damn the personal cost! But Bigelow plays everything so close to the vest and subdued, the price Maya pays is left at the margins and between the lines right up until the last moment of the film, where it is laid out plain and hauntingly clear. “Where do you want to go?” a pilot asks Maya shortly after Bin Laden has finally been taken out and she is ready to resume the rest of her life. The question sits there unanswered. Where, indeed?
Piers Marchant is a Philly-based writer and editor, and the EIC (and film critic) for two.one.five magazine (215mag.com). His reviews can be found on 215mag.com and here. You can also follow him on twitter @kafkaesque83.
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