There is possibly no better director of action working right now than Kathryn Bigelow. After her break in the early 1990s with “Point Break”, Bigelow has proven her skill in a field dominated by men, reaching the height of her career in 2010 with her Oscar win for directing “The Hurt Locker”, a war film set in Iraq that won Best Picture that year. Now, Bigelow is back with another thriller set overseas, but this one is even more of an epic: an account of the events leading up to the killing of Osama bin Laden a couple years ago.
“Zero Dark Thirty” opens a couple years after September 11, 2001. CIA agent Maya (Jessica Chastain) is sent to Pakistan, where other agents are using brutal interrogation techniques to pull information from captured Al Qaeda terrorists in an attempt to determine the whereabouts of their leader, Osama bin Laden. Maya is initially reluctant to engage in these forms of torture, but as she becomes more and more determined to find bin Laden, she realizes the necessity of them. Maya becomes increasingly run down as the years go by and fewer breakthroughs in the hunt are made, but her determination becomes an obsession, leading up to the discovery of a compound in 2011 where bin Laden could very well be hiding out in—and where the government sends an elite team of U.S. Navy SEALS to finish the job.
In a way, “Zero Dark Thirty” isn’t so much about the hunt for bin Laden. It isn’t about the tactics the United States used to find him, and it doesn’t pass judgment on the morality of said tactics. The story at its heart is about Maya, a young woman recruited to the CIA straight out of high school who has done nothing else in her career but search for bin Laden. The no-nonsense Chastain portrays both her strength and her vulnerabilities with ease, giving the otherwise fast-paced thriller some moments of quiet emotional resonance, particularly in the film’s almost devastating final scene. At other times, however, her character doesn’t feel as well-developed, particularly toward the beginning of the film, when she seems to go from fresh-faced agent who can’t stand to watch someone being tortured to the one orchestrating the torture.
In fact, at least the whole first half hour of the film doesn’t feel like it serves a larger purpose and is mainly there to show the interrogation tactics used by the U.S., a ploy for creating controversy that is below Bigelow’s level. But when these scenes pass, the film finds its main focus, and the tension in every scene is almost tangible. Bigelow proved how effectively she could build suspense with “The Hurt Locker”, and here she does it again. Every scene, whether you already know what will happen next or not, builds slowly but steadily, winding up the audience until it’s time to let them go, only to start to wind them up again.
But the least suspenseful scene—intense though it is—is the climax, in which the Navy SEALS storm bin Laden’s compound. At this point, the film diverts from its previous focus, Maya and her hunt, her story, her obsession, and focuses instead on the soldiers, not even flashing back to Maya’s reaction until after the deed is done. As well done as the scene is itself, and as crucial as it probably is to the story, it doesn’t feel like it fits into the movie as whole as well as it should.
Still, “Zero Dark Thirty” is a first-rate thriller, regardless of how true or untrue it is or where you stand on the United States’ involvement overseas. It’s a fascinating and intense look into one of the greatest manhunts in recent history, and even if it lacks the intimacy and strong character development of “The Hurt Locker”, it is still a milestone in Bigelow’s career, and I can’t wait to see what she tackles next.
Runtime: 157 minutes. Rated R for strong violence including brutal disturbing images, and for language.
Check out showtimes for this movie and more at the following St. Louis-area theaters:
- Wehrenberg Theatres
- AMC Theatres
- Regal Movie Theatres
- Galleria 6
- Chase Park Plaza
- Granite City
- Moolah Theatre
- Hi-Pointe Theatre
- St. Andrews Cinema
- Plaza Frontenac Cinema
- Tivoli Theatre
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