One messy, mesmerizing manhunt
It’s among the rarest of cinematic occurrences: the hero of a military thriller is a woman. And apparently it takes a woman, in this case, Oscar winning director Kathryn Bigelow, to make that hero and the film in which she is featured both unsettling and unforgettable.
“Zero Dark Thirty” dramatizes the 10-year manhunt by the CIA for Osama Bin Laden, the founder of terrorist organization al-Qaeda that claimed responsibility for the 9/11 attacks. Leading the investigation through its grim, painstaking, dangerous, frustrating and ultimately successful journey is agent Maya (Jessica Chastain), whom we first meet when she’s assigned to assist in the “enhanced interrogation” process depicted in early scenes by the grisly waterboarding and torturous starvation of a suspected al-Qaeda money handler.
It’s important to understand that Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal (who also collaborated on Oscar winner “The Hurt Locker”) have crafted an accurate but not necessarily non-fiction narrative of the events, though many of the details of the covert operation ring so true they have prompted a bi-partisan Senate investigation. Adding to the controversy is the film’s decidedly apolitical stance on the severe forms of torture depicted in the film, which may or may not have led directly to Bin Laden’s demise.
From a filmmaking standpoint, “Zero Dark Thirty” is a riveting, unique work that blends the complex procedural nature of such a manhunt with the gritty realities of dealing with terrorists who kill with rabid determination.
Ultimately, the story rests on Maya, who grows from a vulnerable, shell-shocked neophyte hired by the CIA out of high school, to a field weary, f-bomb dropping agent who stands up to the male-dominated management team that constantly doubts her methods and her confidence regarding Bin Laden’s whereabouts. (Jason Clarke, as an unflinching interrogation expert and Kyle Chandler as a Station Chief are both excellent.) The effort takes its toll on Maya, and Chastain is superb in providing the requisite depth of emotion.
The film’s final 45 minutes detail the fateful raid on the private residential compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan by a group of Navy SEALs that began at 12:30 a.m. (a.k.a. zero dark thirty) in May of 2011. Much of the intricate, intense raid is filmed in night-vision as the teams go through the tri-level housing complex securing the women and children they find, shooting four others and killing the prime suspect with no loss of American life.
“Zero Dark Thirty” is a grim reminder of war’s moral complexities, and no doubt the film will continue to spark controversy. It challenges the justifications of war’s ugly atrocities, without resorting to jingoistic platitudes.
It’s no “Top Gun,” but it’s not “Platoon” either. Those films have their place, and so does “Zero Dark Thirty” – at the top of any serious filmgoer’s must-see list.
Rated R. For strong violence, including brutal disturbing images and language.