It’s not an easy feat to milk suspense out of a story where the audience already knows how it ends, but that’s exactly the cinematic sleight of hand that director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal have pulled off with “Zero Dark Thirty.” This is a reteam of the two, who both won Oscars for “The Hurt Locker” in 2010. “Zero Dark Thirty” is actually a far better movie.
“Zero Dark Thirty,” which is military jargon for the dark of night, and in particular, half past midnight, opens on 9/11, which is heard, rather than seen. From there, the movie focuses on Maya, a young CIA officer and terrorist-targeter played with depth and compassion by Jessica Chastain. Her personal and professional odyssey takes a decade, following leads, many fruitless, in the hunt for Osama bin Laden.
Bigelow and Boal pull no punches in telling their story. At the outset Maya observes an interrogation involving waterboarding with fascination and repulsion. The filmmakers do not lecture, and do not judge. And although the scenes involving torture are disturbing, they are neither prevalent nor gratuitous.
Boal’s ear for dialogue here is uncanny, and Bigelow’s cinematic craftsmanship is off the charts. Her no-nonsense approach gives much of “Zero Dark Thirty” a documentary-like sense of verisimilitude. Boal’s screenplay, however, has its roots in the “new journalism” of the sixties, when writers began to apply literary techniques to descriptions of actual events. The combination of these techniques in the context of a movie creates something close to Hemingway as cinema.
“Zero Dark Thirty” is a long movie; go easy on the soda. That being said, there is no fat on this movie and it feels shorter than it is (157 minutes). In fact if anything Bigelow errs on the side of not giving the audience much time to catch up. The characters speak in jargon, and phony expository dialogue is eschewed.
The climactic raid on the bin Laden compound is a masterpiece of action staging, with absolutely superb night aerial photography, and handheld photography on the ground, alternating natural lighting with the now-familiar technique of night vision, which looks a little like looking at the world through Gatorade. The calm, almost mechanical precision of the SEALs is almost chilling, and Bigelow doesn’t look away when they fire precautionary rounds into bodies already on the ground.
This is not primarily an action movie, however. Most of the plot deals with the hunt for bin Laden, though the story at times is punctuated with genuinely startling terrorist attacks, and Bigelow still does the most realistic and violent explosions in the business.
“Zero Dark Thirty” is loaded for bear with superb supporting performances from a highly talented cast, including the wonderful Jason Clarke as a CIA officer who starts to burn out after doling out too much torture, Kyle Chandler as a Mideast Section chief, Jennifer Ehle as a rival CIA officer and Mark Strong, as a frustrated intelligence officer back home. Joel Edgerton and Chris Pratt play members of SEAL Team Six, which eventually made the fateful raid on bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan.
Controversy surrounding this movie was probably inevitable. Criticisms in certain political arenas, however, charging that the movie depicts the intelligence that located bin Laden was the result of torture, are inaccurate. If anything, “Zero Dark Thirty” appears to take the view that information obtained under duress or through torture is unreliable. In any event, taken on its own merits as a movie, this is a must-see. “Zero Dark Thirty” is a dramatic and suspenseful powerhouse that’s likely to leave you limp.
"Zero Dark Thirty" is now showing at Capital District theaters including the Bow Tie Cinemas Movieland in Schenectady, the Rotterdam Square Cinema, the Regal Cinemas Colonie Center Stadium 13, the Regal Cinemas Crossgates Stadium 18 & IMAX, the Regal Cinemas Latham Circle Mall 10, the Regal Cinemas Clifton Park Stadium 10 & RPX, the Spectrum 7 in Albany and the Regal Cinemas East Greenbush 8.