Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty

ZERO DARK THIRTY: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, directed by Kathryn Bigelow (157 min.)

The following is based on first-hand accounts of true events.  This is what the opening title card of Zero Dark Thirty tells us; something along those lines I should say.  I don't concern myself much with nitpicking truths and controversies with the film to be honest.  Sure, certain things may have been embellished for the sake of dramatic effect, but maybe my optimism assures me most of the pieces in place are based in fact.  I don't imagine any large fictional leaps made in order to dramatize a story that is as dramatic and compelling as anything in modern American History.  World History to be more specific.  Zero Dark Thirty is telling the story of the World's most legendary manhunt, and it lives up to its source material.  This is an excellent film from start to finish.

We begin with a black-screen reference to 9/11, and we launch immediately into the search for Osama bin Laden.  We meet Maya (Jessica Chastain), a CIA operative, young and eager and determined to find and kill bin Laden.  She comes in as an observer first, standing by watching physical and mental torture of detainees by Dan (Jason Clarke, in a standout performance), as he employs all of those controversial methods in order to get an answer.  Water-boarding takes front and center early on and, politics aside, these are moments which pulled me into the severity of the narrative.  They set the tone and set the stakes for what is to come.

We all know the direction the manhunt went over the course of a decade, which is a tricky dance for director Kathryn Bigelow.  Some of the suspense could have been zapped in the hands of a lesser director, but Bigelow keeps us engaged.  As moments unfold over the years, even the more novice news historian can keep up through the CIA jargon and keep up with the investigation.  Moments like the 2005 London bus bombing and the bomb in Times Square in 2010 are highlighted to create a thread which drives the film forward over ten years.  The entire time it is Maya pursuing her target with unflinching determination and the advantage of a fresh approach.

It is Maya who pushes back at conventional thinking regarding the whereabouts of bin Laden.  Why would he be in the mountains, in a cave?  Is there the possibility he may be hiding in plain sight in the middle of town?  She thinks so, and she fights against her superiors, all men, including Joseph Bradley (Kyle Chandler), the CIA director in the Middle East who thinks she is nuts.  Later she must convince the CIA Director played by James Gandolfini, and she takes on the challenges with the same determination she has carried with her throughout the manhunt.  The most compelling aspect of the story itself is how just one opposing opinion changed the entire game.  Maya's insistence is what got the ball rolling and got Seal Team 6 involved.

The offensive on the compound in Pakistan is the third act of the film, filled out with mostly nameless faces except Joel Edgerton and Chris Pratt as Navy SEALs.  The attack is sloppy, but tense and quick.  All of the intensity of the film has led to this, a truly gripping finale to a story in which we all know the ending.  The two hours preceding the attack, the procedural aspect, is equally as gripping as these final moments.  Despite its jnown ending, the film still has some surprises along the way.  Credit Jessica Chastain for most of this; she is going to be tough to overtake on Oscar night it seems, and deservedly so.  Beyond Chastain the supporting performances are even and the pacing brisk for a movie that hits two-and-a-half hours.  And when we get to the end, to the final result, we get a moment with our hero much like the one in Bigelow's The Hurt Locker.  Comparing the two beyond that would be fruitless.