In 2009’s The Hurt Locker, director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal teamed up to show us the harsh realities of a post 9/11 world. “War is a drug,” says the opening screen of the film. In Bigelow and Boal’s latest, Zero Dark Thirty, they focus on obsession yet again. This time it is billed as “the greatest manhunt in history”—the decade long search for Osama bin Laden. Zero Dark Thirty is more in the form of cinema journalism, in which we see Boal’s script laid out like an extensive classified report. What the audience also needs to keep in mind is that this is technically a fictional account of real events, considering the information is still classified…
Now we all know the story, so there aren’t necessarily any spoilers here. The film opens with a plain black screen, while the only thing that can be heard is the voices of those in the World Trade Center crying for help, or on the phone with their loved ones – which is extremely moving in itself – and ends with the Navy SEAL Team Six killing and capturing Osama bin Laden. What makes Bigelow’s direction and Boal’s writing so special is the fact that even though we all know how it ends, they still leave us hanging on the edge of our seats.
When details of the film first emerged, it came as a surprise to many to hear that there would be a female lead. The killing of Osama bin Laden is only a fraction of the story, as the raid of the Abbottabad compound only spans about 20 minutes of the film’s 2 hour and 37 minute runtime (the title of the film is military vernacular for the time of the raid, 12:30 a.m.). What doesn’t come as a surprise is that Academy Award nominee Jessica Chastain allows the viewer to sit back and marvel at her subtle yet aggressive approach to the character. Over the course of the film we are able to see the emotional toll the hunt for bin Laden takes on her. Chastain shines in her first true lead role and her Oscar nomination for ZDT is well earned.
The story focuses on Maya’s (Jessica Chastain) tireless obsession with tracking and killing Osama bin Laden (it should be noted that Chastain’s character is based on a real CIA agent who is still undercover). Maya is hard-nosed and determined as she challenges the CIA’s traditional style of work. At a roundtable discussion on whether or not bin Laden is located at the Abbottabad compound, Chastain shines. On the probability of bin Laden’s presence, one CIA analyst gives a 60% probability, another states 80%, another states a “soft” 60%. When asked, Maya replies, “It’s 100%. I’ll say 95% because I know certainty freaks you guys out, but it’s 100.” To give a better sense of her style, when asked by the CIA director (James Gandolfini) who she is earlier in the film, Maya replies with, “the mother–ker who found this place.”
What could be the film’s biggest achievement is that it is virtually nonpolitical, with no flag waving or anything of the sort, Bigelow and Boal leave it up to the viewer. What has been a hot button topic is the use of torture. The film doesn’t endorse torture, and it also leaves it up to the viewer to decide whether or not it was necessary.
Without giving away too much information, the raid is one of the film’s finest scenes. When doors are breached with an explosion, what follows is a slow and methodical night vision search with beautiful direction and camera work. We see that Maya’s whole life has been her work and this obsession, and the audience bears the same collective weight that Maya does when the final credits roll.
Zero Dark Thirty is a piece of stunning and ambitious filmmaking. Intense and gripping, and spanning 10 years of persistence, it is impossible to let your eyes leave the screen. If Zero Dark Thirty proves anything, it is that Kathryn Bigelow and Jessica Chastain are two bad ass women.
Not only is Zero Dark Thirty one of the awards season’s best films, it is an epic achievement, and quite possibly the film to define an American decade.