The nominations: Picture, Actress, Original Screenplay, Film Editing, Sound Editing
The film: As of 2003, CIA officer Maya (Jessica Chastain) has since her recruitment from high school spent her brief career in intelligence working through information related solely to al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, and the September 11th terrorist attacks. Assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan, she accompanies veteran fellow agent Dan (Jason Clarke) to black sites to interrogations of Saudi terrorist prisoners. She quickly develops a strong stomach watching Dan humiliate and water-board a detainee named Ammar, whom she and Dan trick into revealing his old friend Abu Ahmed as bin Laden’s personal courier. Other prisoners corroborate the story claiming Abu Ahmed carries messages from bin Laden to fellow al-Qaeda leader Abu Faraj al-Libi. When Abu Faraj is captured in 2005 by the CIA and Pakistani police Maya interrogates and tortures him though he denies knowing Abu Ahmed. Maya feels his denial signals the importance of Abu Ahmed and need of his protection.
The next few years pass and Maya evolves into a strong veteran officer and a single-tasking agent, still adamant that finding Abu Ahmed will lead to bin Laden. She survives the Islamabad Marriott Hotel bombing in 2008 and loses friend and fellow agent Jessica at the Camp Chapman attack in 2009. A Jordanian prisoner says that he personally buried the man the CIA identified as Abu Ahmed, leading Maya’s superiors to believe her lead has been dead for years; having spent nine years of her life on this lead, Maya is not convinced. One day a freshman research analyst in Moroccan intelligence suggests to Maya after some study of her own that Abu Ahmed is really an alias for a man named Ibrahim Sayeed. Maya contacts Dan who now works in Langley at CIA headquarters for help and reveals her theory that the CIA confused Saied’s picture with his dead brother Habit, who bear striking resemblance. Dan gets approval to use CIA funds to purchase a Lamborghini for a Kuwaiti businessman in exchange for Sayeed’s mother’s phone number. Although Sayeed’s phone calls are all traced, his intricate tradecraft helps him avoid detection until a group of CIA operatives locate his vehicle and follow him to a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
The compound is surveyed for many months with many attempts to enter and gather intelligence but to no avail. Satellite imagery does confirm that there are three couples living there, though the husband of the third couple is never seen in daylight. When the CIA briefs their director for plans on a capture or kill operation, they pitch sixty to eighty percent certainty that bin Laden is at the compound; Maya brashly asserts her certainty as “one hundred f***ing percent.” President Obama approves the raid for May 2, 2011. Though during the operation one of the stealth helicopters crashes, the SEAL team breaches the compound where they discover al-Qaeda intelligence and kill a number of men. The team brings the suspected corpse back to the U.S. base in Afghanistan. As the foremost intelligence officer, Maya views the body and confirms it to be Osama bin Laden.
The odds: Perhaps my favorite thing about this year’s group of Best Picture nominees is that not only are they all truly great films and that their degrees of greatness can only be judged from person to person through varying opinions rather than a wan year where the winner is a cop out to searching for the best amongst mediocrity but that they represent a wide spectrum of view points and styles of filmmaking. In the company of the unfailingly bold Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained and the protean modern fable Beasts of the Southern Wild, Kathryn Bigelow’s bin Laden manhunt epic Zero Dark Thirty holds a lantern for singular, fresh, and highly narrative filmmaking. Spring-boarding off of the highly acclaimed and highly original The Hurt Locker, Bigelow builds her story with realism to magnify the frustrating monotony of its heroine and her dedication and stacks the pressure with a real-time point of view. The film comes off as more of a journalistic and dissected homage to tenacious analysis rather than a perverted glorification of “interrogation techniques” as some have come to label it. There are no Michael Bay derivative blood-and-glory antics to give the grinding and intense story flare; this story is meant to be feared and respected not gawked at, and as channeled through the creative mind of Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal it is evident that this end vision was achieved in all seriousness. As such I must point out how uncouth it is for anyone to criticize the motives of this kind of filmmaking as anything other than attempting to show the most real and aesthetically intense recreation of real events. Portraying the horror of real events isn’t condoning them – if that were true, Steven Spielberg would have never made a movie after the abuse and incest in The Color Purple let alone the grueling nature of the Holocaust in Schindler’s List or the brutality of the nineteenth century slave trade in Amistad. All treatises aside, I dispassionately vouch for the unencumbered artistic vision that is Zero Dark Thirty.
Like fellow director Ben Affleck, mathematics prevented Kathryn Bigelow from receiving a nomination for Best Director. Even so I would put it as Argo’s biggest competition for Best Picture. But if I had to place assurance on a possible winner for this best titled film of the year I would say that Jessica Chastain is just that. Her competition Jennifer Lawrence has been taking home a slue of awards for her performance in Silver Linings Playbook, though her wiliness and spirit as the fiery widow Tiffany doesn’t hold a candle to Chastain’s ardent and fearless turn as CIA agent Maya who is the beautiful and violently powerful center to this blazing star of a movie. Odd may put Lawrence as the likely winner, but precedent may suggest otherwise. Last year AMPAS voters displayed a long unseen objectivity by giving the Best Actress Oscar to Meryl Streep for the great performance in the lesser film The Iron Lady instead of to the lesser (though still great) Viola Davis in greater film The Help. Everyone may have enjoyed Silver Linings Playbook more, but I have hope that voters will put aside their subjective views and raise up Chastain’s truly winning performance to its deserved status.