Seattle, the most hotly discussed movie of the moment, even more than Django Unchained or Les Miserables, is finally in nearby theatres. Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty has been bandied about as propaganda from both sides of the political aisle, decried for its inaccuracies, celebrated for its research and has won a heap of awards along the way.
The movie is phenomenal, telling the story of the hunt for Osama bin Laden, using Jessica Chastain’s CIA analyst Maya as the conduit. Unlike the advertisements, Zero Dark Thirty is distinctly more than the final raid on bin Laden’s compound; that point is the final act. Also, unlike many people’s claims, often by those whom have yet to read the script or see the film, Zero Dark Thirty is not three hours on how torture breeds great intel. Instead, Bigelow and screenwriter Marks Boal have crafted a view into the variety of ways America and its partners go about fighting modern terrorism, from hanging up starving individuals to bribing local Pakistani men to track a car.
The pulsating spine of Bigelow’s work is procedural in nature, as Chastain’s Maya gets used to the ugliness of her daily routine and struggles to convince others that her opinions and outcomes are more than theory. Chastain is incredible here, never the naïve waif that she might initially appear. Maya knows what she’s doing, how to subtly use femininity to her advantage and what people’s buttons need to be pushed. Chastain displays a toughness that goes beyond posturing. Characters have been portrayed as tired before, but it tends to be in the physical realm. Her Maya is obsessed with her job and mentally drained from work encompassing her whole being. We never see Maya - or any of the other characters in the movie - resting at home or talking to their families. Maybe a glimpse of dinner between two colleagues, though those scenes always are clinical in their pursuits of pushing the plot along.
The naturalistic tone may be what’s drawing the larger ire over Zero Dark Thirty’s fictional elements. By condensing ten years of work into feature-length, various real people became one and short-cuts are laid down. However, such things have also occurred in Lincoln (where names of politicians were changed) and Argo (featuring whole tense scenes concocted for Hollywood effect), along with an endless amount of classic films “based on” real events, which is what this picture claims to be. It’s that naturalistic feel which transcends Bigelow’s picture into something stupendous.
She presents what happened, or a similar version, without opinion or judgment. Now, what Bigelow and Boal choose to show obviously is a sense of editorializing, but the characters involved are never cardboard in construction. They are doing their job; occasionally nasty and rarely depicted as stylish. In fact, the movie’s only false note comes in a key meeting where the tense conclusion is telegraphed by the movie’s previously established rhythms. In the back half, Bigelow slightly repeats herself, showing her cards when situations are about to hit the fan.
That said, the final raid of bin Laden’s compound is a corker, encompassing the movie’s strengths in one outstanding scene. Even though we know the outcome, there is vibrant anxiety as the famous Seal Team 6 members go room to room searching for the world’s most wanted man. Bigelow pulls no punches, letting the violence be what it is; horrific and part of the way things are.
Zero Dark Thirty opens in limited release tomorrow in Seattle.