With "Zero Dark Thirty, director Kathryn Bigelow delivers a riveting and thoroughly engrossing film focusing on the decade long covert hunt for Osama Bin Laden that is epic in it's detailed procedural narrative that builds to a literally heart-pounding payoff. That's a considerable feat to accomplish considering we all know how this film ends. However, Bigelow delivers that expected climax by avoiding the potential temptation to turn this film into a shallow jingoistic exercise of excess and explosive action.
Instead, wonderfully supported by a screenplay penned by former journalist Mark Boal, with whom she also collaborated on her Oscar winning 2008 film, "The Hurt Locker", Bigelow delivers a film that is a thoughtful study of grim determination and dogged persistence in the hunt for Bin Laden, as depicted by the film's central character Maya, a CIA operative brilliantly portrayed by Jessica Chastain.
Chastain's Maya is our intensely focused surrogate guide through countless leads, dead-ends, raised and later dashed hopes in the meticulous, and often frustrating search, for Bin Laden. She begins her journey early in her career as a young intelligence operative in 2003, determined yet perhaps a tad naive and semi unprepared for the grim and formidable task that lay ahead for her.
When we first see Maya, she witnesses - in a scene deemed without merit as controversial, a possible terrorist detainee being interrogated for information about Bin Laden. Make no mistake, the brutal interrogation techniques depicted, which include a toned down version of water boarding, are jarring and uncomfortable to watch as the detainee is humiliated, locked into a small box, deprived of sleep and more.
Maya is visibly shaken, as is the audience, to witness the proceedings. But, Maya also realizes this is, for better or worse, part of the task she has been sanctioned to undertake to ultimately catch a mastermind of murder. Quickly, she develops an internal emotional armor to the events unfolding before her and she envelops herself in a driven, almost obsessive focus to uncover every minute lead and nugget of information that could lead to Bin Laden's capture.
In a bravura performance, Chastain gives Maya a steely independent spirit and, at times, a coldly unemotional detachment in her decade long quest to uncover the lean threads of sparse intelligence information that, when pieced together into a meaningful tapestry, will eventually reveal Bin Laden's whereabouts. Maya becomes almost relentlessly robotic and single-minded in her mission. However, thanks to Chastain, we effectively feel the weight of Maya's determination to triumph in this quest, despite personal loss, tragedy and bureaucratic roadblocks by her superiors.
We may neither completely understand Maya nor even like her or her actions. But, by the film's memorable closing shot, we nevertheless feel a connection to her and share her relief and emotional release when the mission to find Bin Laden is complete. Indeed, there is a sense of admiration and gratitude felt towards Maya ( or the real life character upon which she is based ) and those who assisted her in the hunt.
However, the lion's share of credit for this film's narrative success squarely belongs to director Kathryn Bigelow. With "Zero Dark Thirty", Bigelow has constructed a taut story that is both a solid detective drama and, in the end, an incredibly thrilling action film where the "action" in the form of the actual raid on Bin Laden's compound is pulse-poundingly understated, yet spellbinding.
The film's third act where Bin Laden's hidden lair is ultimately discovered is the crowning moment in an already wonderfully well crafted film despite it's complexity. Scenes depicting Maya's growing frustration as government officials ( including a wonderful performance by James Gandolfini as Defense Secretary Leon Panetta ) demand more and more confirmations before green lighting the military raid on Bin Laden's suspected compound... ultimately build to a superbly staged climax.
Bigelow's direction of the raid itself is phenomenal in it's surprisingly quiet, even frightening, intensity. We the audience almost feel as though we ourselves are on the ground with the elite Seal Team forces as we are shown and follow the operation, often through the eerie point of view green glow of the soldiers' night vision lenses.
The raid is no explosive, gun blazing battle filled with Hollywood bravura and histrionics that is the stock and trade of a lesser filmmaker like Michael Bay. This is an overall quiet, superbly executed operation that builds in almost unbearable tension with each passing moment. From the second the soldiers' boots hit the ground in the darkness, through the tense navigation of darkened corridors of the compound to the ultimate kill shot of the villain himself; the sequence is wonderfully effective because of it's slow steady simmer of tension and understated action.
Thankfully, despite the ludicrous politically driven protests and claims of a misguided few, Bigelow has delivered a film that is most assuredly apolitical in it's approach. Criticism of Bigelow's inclusion of a water boarding scene by agenda driven pundits and zealots are laughable in their derisive intent. Her inclusion of such scenes neither condone nor condemn these actions.
It is part of the record that such interrogation indeed, rightly or wrongly, took place. For Bigelow to have excised such scenes out of political correctness or an agenda to appease the reactionaries, would fall into Oliver Stone JFK-like film revisionism and speculation.
Bigelow presents the events passively, but superbly, without judgement nor opinion. Also, while "Zero Dark Thirty" should not be considered a documentary; Bigelow goes to great lengths to present the events as accurately and fairly as one might expect given the fact she and Boal reportedly had sanctioned access to a great deal of information from the official CIA record.
"Zero Dark Thirty" is one of the year's best film achievements and a crowning jewel in Kathryn Bigelow's already noteworthy resume as a filmmaker. Leave your politics at the door for this film.
It is a thrilling and award worthy cinematic experience, based on real events. It is a story of human determination and a persistence that ultimately resulted in the demise of a monster… and, at least on some level, gives us all some measure of closure and satisfaction.
Tim Estiloz is a member of The Broadcast Film Critics Association and The Boston Online Film Critics Association. Follow Tim on Twitter @TimEstiloz and at www.TimEstiloz.com. - Be sure to LIKE his page on Facebook at: Tim Estiloz Film Reviews.