Zero Dark Thirty

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 01/10/13 21:01:30

"Signed, Sealed And Delivered"
5 stars (Awesome)

Sorry that this review is running a little late--I was waiting to see if Naomi Wolff had any other dumb-ass things to say about it before posting.

At this point, Kathryn Bigelow's "Zero Dark Thirty" has been discussed, parsed and analyzed so frequently in the media over the last month or so--not merely as entertainment but as hard news--that many potential audience members may have the sensation that they have already seen it and not just because virtually every person in the world knows how it ends. And since virtually all of the discussion has revolved around endless nitpicking about what it says or doesn't say instead of how it, there is the possibility that people may get the assumption that it is one long and dry history lesson/policy discussion and stay away from it in droves. This happened three decades ago when "The Right Stuff" premiered in theaters just as the presidential ambitions of one of its subjects, astronaut John Glenn, were kicking into high gear and as a result, one of the finest films of the 1980's wound up fizzling at the box-office. It would be a shame if history were to wind up repeating itself in this case because in recounting the decade-long search for Osama bin Laden in the wake of 9/11, Bigelow and writer Mark Boal (whose previous collaboration was the award-winning "The Hurt Locker") has crafted an utterly compelling work that walks us through one of the most intense criminal investigations of all time with a combination of intense detail and narrative skill that is so deftly handled that a second viewing is almost required just to get a fuller extent of what they have achieved here.

After a prologue depicting the horror of 9/11 via audio recordings, "Zero Dark Thirty" kicks things off that with a sequence that brilliantly introduces us to the person who will be the central focus of the story (aside from bin Laden, of course), young CIA analyst Maya (Jessica Chastain). In it, she arrives at a secret location to bear witness to the interrogation of a prisoner believed to be an Al Qaeda money handler at the hands of military man Dan (Jason Clarke). Dan's methods are undeniably harsh--both physically and emotionally--and as Maya watches silently, the stricken look on her face suggests that she is appalled with what she is seeing. After a while, Dan exists the room and leaves Maya alone with the prisoner, who begins appealing to her human nature in the hopes of stopping the interrogation. In response, she informs him cooly--coldly, in fact--"You can help yourself by being truthful." In that brief moment, we get a perfect sense of who Maya is--she may appear gentle and vulnerable on the surface but beneath that exterior is the kind of steely determination that suggests she will not bend or yield for an instant while in pursuit of something she wants.

She is also resourceful as well and when it appears that the interrogation has hit a dead end, she concocts an inspired ruse that lures the prisoner into giving up the name of the man who is said to be bin Laden's personal courier. From this bit of intelligence, along with diligent research, Maya becomes convinced that bin Laden is not holed up in the mountains of Afghanistan, as is the popular working theory, but is instead hiding in plain sight and that if the CIA can track down the courier, he will lead them to his whereabouts. To her superiors, this theory makes no sense--there is no way that it can be that simple and besides, they have information that says that the courier in question is already dead--and they disregard her belief that he is the key to finding bin Laden. Over the next few years, while her colleagues pursues flashier leads that prove to be too good to be true and which sometimes have deadly consequences, Maya continues to follow her theory and eventually makes a series of breakthroughs that allow her to pinpoint the compound in Pakistan where she is sure that her ultimate target is residing. For a while, her superiors continue to disregard her findings but eventually, she convinces the right people that she is on the right track and at long last, the trigger is pulled on the raid that would finally bring down the world's most wanted man.

"Zero Dark Thirty" does a lot of things right but the thing that Bigelow and Boal get right the most is the way that they have chosen to approach the material. In most hands, a film about the takedown of bin Laden would have focused almost exclusively on the preparation and execution of the raid on the compound--we would have gotten to know the participants and their backstories and there no doubt would have been a training montage or two before getting to the good stuff, presented in the kind of highly stylized manner designed to maximize the cathartic impact of its climax. That could have resulted in a perfectly decent movie (although the recently released "Seal Team Six" kind of proves otherwise) but the film relegates the material involving the raid to the last half-hour or so and stresses a rough and realistic take over the expected hyperbole--even the key shot of bin Laden getting killed is handled in such an unadorned manner that we don't even recognize it for what it is until after the fact.

By focusing almost exclusively on the nuts and bolts of the investigation and nothing else--the only real deviations come from a series of follow-up al Qaeda attacks that punctuate the proceedings and ratchet up the tension even further--the film finds a new angle to the material that makes for an unexpectedly engrossing experience. ONe of the things that I enjoy most about the moviegoing experience is the sensation that I am actually learning something and I had that feeling all the way through "Zero Dark Thirty." Like such classic cinematic procedurals as "All the President's Men" and "Zodiac," it offers viewers a ton of detailed information to immerse themselves in and then presents it in a clean and efficient manner that allows them to absorb it without becoming overwhelmed and without resorting to the hackneyed gambit of having characters explain what they are doing to each other at length so as to clue in the audience. By taking this approach, the film also accentuates and celebrates the real-life information analysis that is the background of a successful intelligence program that is rarely dealt with in popular entertainment so as to focus on the flashy derring-do.

It also cleverly allows Bigelow and Boal to sidestep the potentially thorny subject of politics--aside from a brief clip of an interview with President Obama on "60 Minutes" playing in the background in one scene, neither he nor his predecessor are seen or even referenced as far as I can recall. The only form of politics that they delve into are of the gender-related variety--without making too overt of point of it, the film quietly and impressively observes as a woman navigating and fighting to be heard in professional and societal cultures that have traditionally been dominated by men. At times, it plays like an expansions of the themes that Bigelow previously tackled in her underrated 1990 cop thriller "Blue Steel," which also involved a rookie woman trying to track down a psychopath in the face of disbelief from her superiors. None of this is stated overtly throughout but it does add an extra layer of intrigue to the film that it would not have possessed had it been centered around a male character.

This stuff is all great but what transforms "Zero Dark Thirty" from an exemplary work of journalism jam-packed with fact, figures and little else into a full-blooded cinematic experience of the highest order is the incredible central performance from the increasingly invaluable Jessica Chastain as Maya. Over the last couple of years, she has come out of seemingly nowhere with a string of acclaimed supporting turns in films such as "Tree of Life," "The Debt," "Coriolanus" and "Lawless." With this film, she gets her first full-fledged lead and she galvanizes the screen so completely that it is nearly impossible to conceive of anyone else who could have done equal justice to the role. The part of Maya is one that really doesn't have much in the way of cinematic analogues to draw from--there is Clarice Starling in "Silence of the Lambs," of course, but after that, the list tapers off quite quickly--so she is pretty much developing it almost entirely from scratch and every instinct she has pays off beautifully.

One of the most fascinating things about it is the way that it inverts the usual bad-ass babe trope of having the woman being tough on the outside but all vulnerable and emotional underneath--you know, like a woman--so as to make her seem more likable and vulnerable. Here, she plays Maya as being softer on the outside but so fierce and determined underneath that there are times when we get the feeling that her gentler outward appearance is nothing more than a ruse she has developed to get her way but both sides do come to play in the extraordinary final scenes in which she comes face-to-face with the corpse of bin Laden and her face shows the conflict between the joy at seeing how her hunch paid off and the exhausted confusion at realizing that the single force that has been driving her life for the last few years has just come to an abrupt end. It is a great capper to a great performance that solidifies her position as one of the most exciting new stars of recent memory.

Of course, most of the film's considerable artistic achievements have been pushed to the side in recent weeks by the controversy that has arisen over charges that it suggests that key information leading to bin Laden's discovery came as a result of interrogation techniques that would be considered torture and that by showing such actions without explicitly condemning them, Bigelow is glorifying those actions in a way that will make them seem entirely reasonable to many viewers. Being of semi-sound and wildly liberal mind, I can confidently avow that these complaints are almost completely without merit. For starters, it does show that, at least in the early years of the search, such deplorable techniques as water-boarding were being employed--I don't think that this is flying in the face of the facts. However, there are other approaches that are deployed as well in the hopes of getting information that are shown to have played an equal or greater role in acquiring the key information. The problem that some of the film's critics on Capitol Hill seem to be having is that they apparently believe that a filmmaker automatically endorses each and every action and behavior that they choose to depict on the screen. That is, of course, absolute nonsense--if that were true, would that mean that Steven Spielberg was endorsing the Holocaust when he made "Schindler's List" or shark attacks when he made "Jaws?" Besides, anyone actually paying attention to the film would have to be deluded to think that it offers viewers a blanket endorsement of torture--those sequences are brutal and extremely difficult to watch and when we seen the character in charge of those actions later on, he seems to regard his work as a necessary evil that he takes no pleasure in performing. Does anyone out there sincerely believe that the film would have been more effective if everything had just stopped dead so that the people on the screen could start saying "You know--torture is bad!" for several minutes so that no one would come away from it with the wrong idea? The logic required to come to that particular conclusion is arguably more tortured than anyone in the film itself.

"Zero Dark Thirty" is an immensely complicated undertaking--even more so when you consider that until they heard the news about bin Laden's death at the same time that everyone else did, they were knee-deep in pre-production on a different project about how he couldn't be found that was instantly scrapped in order to pursue this one virtually from scratch--and it succeeds so completely on every possible level (it even manages to generate genuine white-knuckle suspense out of a finale that was perhaps the biggest given since "Titanic") that it would be a shame to see its achievements be sidelined by the controversy that has surrounded it. Suffused with the immediacy of a story torn almost literally from today's headlines and crafted with the kind of advanced technical prowess to ensure that it will nevertheless stand the test of time, "Zero Dark Thirty" is an instant classic--a smart, exciting and shockingly entertaining work that really is one of the best films of the year.

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