Ignore the controversy. Zero Dark Thirty is an undeniably well-executed behind-the-scenes account of the hunt for Osama bin Laden that, by Hollywood standards, strives for truth. It stands tall as terrific and engrossing entertainment, a suspenseful ride that never slacks and strong ensemble work that places this film among the best of 2012.
But by diving into such recent history Zero Dark Thirty was bound to court criticism. Its negative appraisals by those convinced of hidden agendas began when the project was announced soon after the death of bin Laden and has continued before the film's wide release. Perhaps if the naysayers had seen the movie they could at least acknowledge that, as a pure action thriller, Zero Dark Thirty stands on its own merits, regardless of political interpretation or motive.
The triumph of Zero Dark Thirty is with its writer-director team, Mark Boal and Kathryn Bigelow, who each earned Oscars for their work on 2011's The Hurt Locker. A gripping look at the psychology of war, The Hurt Locker launched the career of Jeremy Renner, and beat out box-office behemoth Avatar for Best Picture. Zero Dark Thirty is not a sequel to Boal's and Bigelow's earlier effort, yet it is very much an extension of The Hurt Locker's taut pacing and maddening high-wire tension as a CIA operative named Maya pushes herself to the point of breaking to root out the terrorist mastermind hidden somewhere in Afghanistan or Pakistan.
The film opens with Maya's (Jessica Chastain's) arrival at a CIA base of operations in Afghanistan, just as her immediate supervisor Dan (Jason Clarke) is about to torture a prisoner for information. Dan is not sure if the young-but-tough CIA operative is ready to watch the harsh interrogation, and neither is she. For nearly the first half-hour Zero Dark Thirty spends most of its time in the trenches with the CIA agents, documenting the sometimes merciless, sometimes friendly methods operatives employed to glean important information. The film does not take sides on torturing accused terrorists and enemy combatants in the war against terror. The genius of Zero Dark Thirty is in its ability to support these widely opposite viewpoints at once. As evidence, look at the number of critics blasting the film for either supporting or invalidating the technique.
The truth, according to the film, is that it's a long-overlooked tip that proves to be the first major break in the bin Laden hunt after years of dead-end leads and deadly, sometimes tragic, covert operations.
Back in Washington, Maya seizes on this new information, which centers on a shifty courier rumored to deal directly with bin Laden. Maya connects him to a three-story home with a mysterious occupant who never ventures in sight of U.S. spy cameras. As she has almost every step of the way, Maya must convince others in the CIA — this time including CIA Chief Leon Panetta (James Gandolfini), a shrewd master of the political game — that she's right, and bin Laden has been located.
It takes considerable persistence on her part as well as time before action is taken — this is the federal government, after all.
Zero Dark Thirty then shifts into its third act, which is what most people came to see. We're introduced to the Navy Seals, who, accurately or not, are written as brawny bros trained to kill. They kid and joke about their mission — their cavalier attitude about the mission alarms Maya — yet we never see them train for it. In real life, the decorated Seal Team Six rehearsed for the May 2, 2011, mission for a month.
But when the team is finally unleashed as Uncle Sam's long arm of justice, they are a no-nonsense, unflappable group. And as they jump off of the helicopters and into the dark unknown of the al Qaeda leader's compound, Bigelow brings a nervous immediacy to the moment with a bouncy camera within arm's reach of the soldiers. That we know the outcome of these tense few minutes doesn't matter; this is history as adrenaline surge, and it's impossible not to get caught up in this gripping sequence.
The death of bin Laden is the allure of the film and its payoff, but the well-choreographed night raid sequence still wouldn't have the same emotional resonance without our knowledge of the multiple failures and tragedies that got us to this point. Zero Dark Thirty isn't about the end result, but in how we arrived at this moment — in particular one woman's devotion to avenge the casualties of Sept. 11, 2001, and to heal our collective pride by meting retaliatory justice.
Maya is a one-dimensional character — the workaholic who sacrifices her personal life and normalcy for a greater good — but Chastain breaks free of the archetypal restraints and near-flat line character arc with implied humanity underneath the pit bull tenacity: the subtle looks, the brief emotional breakdowns that are quickly bottled up and put away, presumably to be dealt with years later in serious therapy sessions. It's a strong performance by a talented actress on the verge of major stardom.
Maya also functions as the embodiment of our own obsession with bin Laden. Far from the world's great super villain as defined by our media and popular culture for a decade, he had become a withering force in a war against our government and Western culture, confined to a lowly existence as a hostage in his own home in a Abbottabad neighborhood. And while his death brought comfort, relief, and closure to many in the United States, it also made the fundamental question of "Now what?" more relevant in our war against terror. Zero Dark Thirty addresses our new quandary as Maya settles into a military cargo plane, her decade-long obsession finished.
The plane will take her anywhere, but when asked where she wants to go next Maya replies, "I don't know."
As the film suggests, neither do we.
Zero Dark Thirty
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow. Written by Mark Boal. A Columbia Pictures release, playing at Rave Franklin Park Fallen Timbers, and Levis Commons. Rated R for strong violence including brutal disturbing images, and for language. Running time: 157 minutes.
Critic's rating: *****
Contact Kirk Baird at firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6734.