“Zero Dark Thirty” is the newest tension laced film from war hardened director Kathtyn Bigelow and like its older brother “The Hurt Locker” it aims to immerse you in the edgy and dangerous world of espionage.
Tension is often very difficult to portray in any medium; but it has become Bigelow’s specialty. The cinematography of both movies leads the audience in the harsh, dirty and unapologetic world that modern conflict has created.
Bigelow teamed up with “Hurt Locker” screenwriter Mark Boal to originally produce a script about the lagging and unsuccessful search for Osama Bin Laden. However, one imagines that the Hollywood rewrite machine went into overdrive once President Barack Obama announced the death of America’s most wanted terrorist in May 2011.
Much like “Hurt Locker,” there is very little celebration in ZDT. The movie goes through great lengths to show the emotional toll this life takes on people.
Jessica Chastain is stoic as CIA operative Maya. Her red hair and cleft chin work to set her apart from the terribly generic cluster of characters surrounding her. Maya is logical but also severely detached from the rest of the supporting cast. The only real character development seen in the movie comes from scenes between Chastain’s Maya and Jason Clarke’s Dan, an officer at a CIA “Blacksite” or what is commonly known as a rendition center.
Their interaction during the unapologetic torture of a detained suspect is often wordless and filled with passing looks and violent actions.
This is a study of people saddled with supremely difficult jobs, doing them as well as they can. Boal chose to show us these terrible actions through the eyes of Maya. Her detached nature an extension of the horrors she has to witness and partake in.
It is a little difficult to bear the scenes of “extreme interrogation” of suspects by Dan which included water boarding, sleep deprivation, bondage and other forms of abuse. The crowd often gasped and one woman left the showing.
However, what the movie does very well is take no moral stance on the subject of torture. It allows the audience to make up their own minds. Unlike other films it does little to push you one way or the other. Maya does not take a stand for the rights of those questioned – in fact by the middle of the movie she uses a proxy to physically interrogate a suspect.
Bigelow portrays the operatives as thankless and often high-strung individuals. The inclusion of terrorist actions which occurred throughout the ten-year manhunt adds fuel to the fire.
Every failed interrogation adds tension as an attack could have been averted and lives saved. Each attack served as a reminder of an agent’s failure and added to the stress on their faces which they carry with them for the rest of the film.
The one trully stand out performance is by Fares Fares as Hakim, a CIA operative tasked as an intermediary. He speaks very little but the stress on his face and his actions are palpable. His life pledged to capture enemy agents,often his own people, in hopes of preventing loss of life. The toll is just as great on him as it is on any other character in the film. It was truly wonderful to see an actor portray this difficult task. His expression during the last raid when he saw the face of a dead bin Laden will stay with me forever.
James Gandolfini is also excellent as a knock-off of Leon Panetta. The portly “Sopranos” star is spot on in mannerism and manner of speak. Panetta could take a cue from Gandolfini and possibly has a career as a movie goodfella.
I just have a few misgivings. Classic movie tropes that I can’t forgive are few and far between in this film but they stand out. CIA operatives do not speak about active operations openly during diner in the Mumbai Marriot. They also don’t narrowly miss being killed in the bombings and walk out with nary a scratch. I also don’t believe that a junior agent would ever talk down to Section Chief Joseph Bradley, played capably Kyle Chandler. If anything that would get them sent to some shack with a space heater in Greenland.
The movie really kicks into high gear during the actual raid on the Abbottabad, Pakistan fortress of Osama Bin Laden. The raid is wonderfully edited to switch between different players on the Navy Seal teams. The entire action is presented through a night vision filter that adds to the real-world immersion that Bigelow is known for.
This is great for the COD generation. In fact the movie-goer behind me was breathing heavy with each step. No music played – just the crunching of gravel on boot, the strapping of C4 to lock and the whisper hiss of suppressed weapons.
The breeching explosions were loud and firefights were shown through an FPS cam reminiscent of Bigelow’s use of the technique in “Strange Days.”
The action is visceral and dirty. The mission carried out to extreme and cold-blooded effectiveness. When the mission is over, it is all business. The SEALs bag and tag a body, information and hard drives are taken and a helicopter exploded. A SEAL even takes bin Laden’s often pictured AK-74 with him as a war prize. But when they return there is very little celebration shown. This is just another day at the office, just another mission to them.
However, at the end of the day Maya, who was consumed with finding bin Laden, identifies the body then boards a C-17 going anywhere. Her life’s work fulfilled, however her life is as empty as ever. The movie paints the picture of the great toll that this life takes on operators. But it does something else – it shows how empty it can be. Once that life of danger and facts is done all that is left is a shell of a life.
Go see this, at least once. Like the “Hurt Locker” it is truly something you can’t afford to miss.