“Zero Dark Thirty” is one of those rare, accomplished movies that can be enjoyed on many different levels.
As entertainment, it is a top-notch procedural/thriller/action flick. As history, it is a warts-and-all, blow-by-blow account of the CIA’s decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden. As a character study, it is a fascinating look at one woman’s obsessive quest and the personal toll it takes on her life.
To have a movie that works on any level is impressive; the mark of a great film is one that holds up no matter how you slice it.
“Zero Dark Thirty” was written by Mark Boal and directed by Kathryn Bigelow, the creative team behind the Oscar winning film “The Hurt Locker,” I mention them both in that order because this is really two films, the first belonging to Boal and the second belonging to Bigelow.
Boal’s movie is the gritty, winding saga of how the CIA tracked down bin Laden. Boal worked closely with the CIA while writing this movie and rolled into Maya (played brilliantly by Jessica Chastain) all of the various low-level agents and analysts who worked feverishly over the years to find Bin Laden.
We never learn much about Maya’s back story because we meet her only a few days after 9/11 as a green field agent walking into a brutal “enhanced interrogation” of one of bin Laden’s relatives.
We then watch her evolve over the ensuing years into a force of nature, a red-headed Ahab in relentless pursuit of her jihadist white whale.
There has been some controversy over the film’s suggestion that information obtained by torture eventually led to bin Laden. The way Boal and Bigelow present the events, it almost doesn’t matter how factual they are because they never really take a side.
We do know that suspects were tortured in the pursuit of bin Laden, whether or not it worked is beside the point. The harsh torture scenes in “Zero Dark Thirty” are used to show how far the characters, and in some ways, the country was willing to go to bring this one man to justice. Boal and Bigelow leave it up to us to decide if it was worth it.
With less than an hour left in the film the movie shifts gears as Bigelow politely nudges Boal out of the way to deliver a riveting, real-time recreation of S.E.A.L Team 6’s raid on bin Laden’s compound.
Bigelow is an exceptional director of action sequences and in spite of the methodical, efficient, night-vision-goggle-lit nature of the raid, she still delivers the most intensely exciting 45 minutes of the year. Be sure you have all of your bathroom breaks taken care of before the Blackhawk helicopters take off or you’ll be sorry.
Even though she fades to the background during this sequence, this still winds up being Chastain’s movie from beginning to end. Hers is a gender-neutral role that 99 times out of 100 would have gone to a man, but she is so formidable and so enthralling to watch you can’t really imagine anyone else, male or female, in the part. The Academy Award for Best Actress is hers to lose.
The superb supporting cast is made up of the likes of Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Ehle, James Gandolfini, Mark Duplass, Joel Edgerton, and Chris Pratt. Everyone here dutifully understands his or her job is to read and react to Chastain, as really only Edgerton and Pratt get any meaningful screen time on their own as S.E.A.L. team leaders.
“Zero Dark Thirty” is poised to do very well on what is shaping up to be a very competitive Oscar night, as multiple nominations are all but guaranteed. It is certainly a movie worthy of acclaim no matter which way you look at it.
“Zero Dark Thirty” is rated R for strong violence including brutal disturbing images, and for language.