Rating:The dual conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have been good to Kathryn Bigelow. Once a very proficient genre director (Point Break, Strange Days, K-19: The Widowmaker), Bigelow released Best Picture award-winner The Hurt Locker in 2008, which vaulted her into the ranks of “serious filmmakers.” But that was no fluke. The Hurt Locker is a smart, visceral look at the insanity that is still occurring in the Middle East thanks to reckless American foreign policy. Bigelow and Locker screenwriter Mark Boal have now returned with Zero Dark Thirty, one the most highly acclaimed and controversial films of 2012.
Zero Dark Thirty chronicles the hunt for Osama bin Laden, beginning just after the terrorist attacks on 9/11 and culminating in the daring operation that killed the former head of al-Qaeda. But since Boal and Bigelow tell the story in a matter-of-fact manner, Zero Dark Thirty can be claimed both by viewers opposed to torture and jingoistic Americans who are just happy to get a chance to see Bin Laden gunned down. It’s perplexing, and judging by the laughs and cheers during the final manhunt at my screening of the film, not everyone will view the film through the same lens.
Most of the film’s contentious torture scenes happen in the beginning when CIA operatives Dan (Jason Clarke) and Maya (Jessica Chastain) attempt to extract answers from a detainee. While Bigelow graphically depicts waterboarding, psychological torture and humiliation, the violence is appropriate, mostly minimal and not sensational in the least. There is no soundtrack telling us how to feel, just a straightforward depiction of some of the methods the CIA (supposedly) used to get information.
People on both sides of the fence can chill out now. No, Zero Dark Thirty isn’t promoting torture as a means to an end, hawkeyes. The same goes for the doves. Don’t even think of indicting Bigelow and Boal as supporters of these methods. Why can’t a film simply depict something without a slant`?
And that is where Zero Dark Thirty succeeds. There are no hidden agendas here or Ben Affleck-as-Superman saving hostages. It reminded me more in tone of Paul Greengrass’ Bloody Sunday. It’s a realistic film that suggests the lengths people in our government went to so they could take Bin Laden. That doesn’t mean it’s easy to watch. Bigelow recreates some of the more haunting incidents of this past bloody decade from a tasteful 9/11 sound montage at the film’s opening to the hotel to the Islamabad Marriott bombing to the 2005 bus bombing in London.
The post-9/11 world is the main character in Zero Dark Thirty, a place clouded with fear and anticipation of future attacks. Leading the charge is Maya, played by Chastain as a socially awkward recluse who eventually becomes obsessed with finding Bin Laden. But unlike the similarly-minded characters in David Fincher’s Zodiac, we are given no personal backstory for Maya. Partly because she isn’t based on a real person and partly because this isn’t that type of film, Chastain does her best with an extremely underwritten part. She embodies the hunt and the fear of being American in Pakistan.
That also presents one of the film’s biggest problems as Maya is a whispery ghost of a character. The delicate actress spends a lot of time wistfully staring off into space or silently emoting. These moments of angst allow us to forgive her for any immoral decisions she must make to reach her objective. Sure, Chastain does a fine job in almost every role she plays, but I daresay she may have been miscast here. When she refers to herself as “the motherfucker that found this place” to the CIA director (James Gandolfini), it just doesn’t feel real or convincing. For the film to succeed as a procedural, perhaps an actress without Chastain’s china-doll looks and disposition would have suited the role better. In fact, her Maya is absent for the film’s most effective final third.
If The Hurt Locker is as fiery and red-blooded as Jeremy Renner’s William James, Zero Dark Thirty is as cucumber cool as Chastain’s distant character. But while her detachment serves a point here, Boal’s sometimes inscrutable script undermines dramatic tension, especially in the film’s first two hours. The Hurt Locker was like one of those explosive devices Renner was tasked to defuse. It felt dangerous and kept you on the edge of your seat. Zero Dark Thirty isn’t nail-biting for most of its runtime and that missing tension takes away some of the viewing investment. Bigelow proves that her directing chops were cut on action movies as the most effective scenes in both The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty come in the tense sections. The final hunt through Bin Laden’s rural compound in Pakistan is gripping, heart pounding and one of the best action sequences of the year. There is just some wading through jargon that has to happen before we get to it.
But back to the laughs and cheers when Bin Laden and his associates are inevitably gunned down at the end of the film. Any sense of rah-rah-we-got-him fervor is something brought into the theater by the audience. There is none of that portrayed on the screen. Bigelow and Boal aren’t sharing their biases. It’s this open discourse that makes Zero Dark Thirty both fascinating and maddeningly frustrating. It may not be the best film of the year that everyone is crowing about, but as an effective and thought-provoking thriller, Zero Dark Thirty captures the zeitgeist of a post-9/11 world and how that horrific attack changed its political landscape.