With Oscar gold under her belt after the success of “The Hurt Locker,” director Kathryn Bigelow set her sights on retelling the story of finding Osama bin Laden after his capture in May 2011. Many moviegoers anticipated “The Hurt Locker’s” intense focus on military action to carry over, making “Zero Dark Thirty” more of the same. But “Zero Dark Thirty” offers audiences anything but a typical military thriller.
The film follows a CIA agent, referred to only as Maya (Jessica Chastain, “Lawless”), who nearly single-handedly heads the search for bin Laden. Beginning in 2003, Maya follows every lead she can to find the world’s most wanted man. First working as an agent at the U.S. embassy in Islamabad, Maya tries to open up from her introverted work ethic and rely on her coworkers for help.
Starting with an eerie audio compilation of the events of 9/11, “Zero Dark Thirty” haunts audiences with a stark and ever-present mood of harsh reality. A heavy original soundtrack subtly maintains an atmosphere of brutality that adds to the film’s wide array of settings. Smooth editing and flow keep the film from lingering on any one aspect of the manhunt.
The film is wracked with controversy over depictions of Maya gathering information with the help of CIA agent Dan (Jason Clarke, “Argo”). Dan uses various torture techniques, including waterboarding, to force information out of an alleged terrorist, who gives Maya the lead she needs to start following bin Laden. Real-life CIA Acting Director Michael Morell said in a statement that the film has many inaccuracies, emphasizing that “Zero Dark Thirty” is “not a realistic portrayal of the facts.”
Chastain plays a raw and often unfiltered character, who, on one occasion, unleashes a verbal ass-whooping on the CIA Islamabad station chief, played by Kyle Chandler (“Argo”). While her motives are obscure throughout the film, Maya is multilayered and mysterious without trying to be. Being the most-followed character in the film doesn’t necessarily make Maya the protagonist. The film likes to shift focus to other agents, including Maya’s “friend” Jessica (Jennifer Ehle, “Contagion”). Maya’s inability to trust anyone is tested as she must sometimes take help from others in order to make progress, but is often let down after things fall apart. She works best alone and thrives on her own. Chastain is brilliant.
“Zero Dark Thirty’s” plot morphs as time progresses. The first part of the film follows post-9/11 terrorist attacks by al-Qaida, including recreations of the London bombings of 2005 and the 2008 Islamabad Marriott bombing. These scenes are used to keep the film moving and to give the audience a timeline of events; they simultaneously contextualize Maya’s growing frustration over not finding bin Laden and add some needless sensationalization in the process. After more thorough evidence of bin Laden’s whereabouts arises, the film turns its focus to politics and bureaucracy. The U.S. government as a whole must agree to pursue Maya’s lead, and Maya must fight to keep herself heard and her lead relevant.
The most prominent flaw in “Zero Dark Thirty” is its scattered representation of Maya’s journey. It covers so much ground that there’s only just enough room for depth that is completely attributed to the film’s amazing script. The writing certainly keeps the film from slowing down, but it gives the sense that the film is running on its tiptoes to the finale.
Knowing the ending of the story does not keep “Zero Dark Thirty” from being impressive. The raid on the compound in Pakistan is mesmerizing, keeping audiences on their feet as a U.S. Navy SEAL team makes its way to the room where bin Laden is eventually killed. The entire film could have been centered around the SEAL team and their mission to kill bin Laden, but it is instead an all-inclusive package wrapped in great production quality and acting.
It is best to take all the “facts” in “the film with a grain of salt, despite a disclaimer at the beginning of the film emphasizing its accuracy. The film is not a documentary and it is not trying to be one. “Zero Dark Thirty” is a thrilling drama about a CIA agent’s struggle to find the world’s most wanted man and the emotional toll it has on her.
“Zero Dark Thirty” is a worthy contender this awards season and should be seen by all movie buffs, if only to stay in the loop.
4.5 out of 5