Kathryn Bigelow’s heroic efforts to get this film made have paid off – Zero Dark Thirty is a compelling, nerve wracking and utterly necessary three hour journey into the darkness of America’s war of terror. It’s a masterful achievement and one of the best films of 2012.
The opening voiceover of a woman on the phone in distress telling her family she loves them moments after her WTC building was hit on Sept. 11, 2001 reminds us how important the mission to capture Bin Laden was – even ten years later.
Zero Dark Thirty takes up the challenge; it’s ambitious and thankfully it succeeds as a logistical, dramatic and historical achievement.
In a strange way, it’s a revenge fantasy that’s real, based on firsthand accounts of those involved in the decade long search and the final takedown of Bin Laden in 2011.
Bigelow manages to make us wince with angsty anticipation as the Navy S.E.A.L.S enter the compound even as we know the outcome. It’s a feature film as well as an historical and journalistic piece, with a documentary element.
It also functions as a fascinating lesson in military and intelligence procedures, as encompassing and Byzantine as they are here. Agents spend as much time on computers, the new battleground, as they do in the field. It’s ugly in the field, where torture, the stench of death and fear and raw nerves rule.
Navy S.E.A.L.S. torture prisoners, spray bullets, drop bombs, and kill children’s parents in front of them. The war on terror is ugly and deadly serious, as the film must show. But we think back to 9/11.
Zero Dark Thirty – a military term meant to describe darkness and secrecy as at the midnight hour of 12.30 am- is hard to read at times as much happens at night, in dark holes in shadowy places, reflecting the darkness of the mission and the ten year veil of secrecy. Shadows, nightlights, shadowy people, indefinable enemies and rising dust obscure every waking aspect of their lives.
A film as grim and determined as this has a physical tightening effect, and aside from a couple of gentle giggles, it heightens as the films moves. Breathing becomes measured and there is palpable relief when it ends. You know you’ve seen something important.
A tiny, delicate woman leads the charge driven by her need to do her job right, to compete in a man’s world and find satisfaction in bringing down al-Qaeda.
Jessica Chastain plays Maya, whose passion and fury outweighs her physical body, her ballsy confidence giving her status among soldiers. She is a warrior queen alongside the Navy S.E.A.L.S. Chastain plays her green raw and unsure when she first arrives to observe an interrogation who matures with experience and commitment to her cause.
An interesting supporting cast including The Office’ Chris Pratt, Jennifer Ehle as Maya’s confidante, Mark Strong as her supportive superior, Stephen Dillane as the National Security Advisor, James Gandolfini as Director of the C.I.A. and Mark Duplass as an officer. They’ve also assembled support from across Europe, the UK and Africa, a truly international unit.
The real star is Kathryn Bigelow, a giant of a filmmaker whose works speaks for itself in The Hurt Locker and now Zero Dark Thirty. She’s like Maya, a woman unrestrained by gender barriers, able to do a “man’s” job, if not exactly interrogating prisoners but making a masterful action war film as well or better than anyone out there.
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Written by Mark Boal
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow
Opens: Dec 19
Runtime: 157 minutes