It’s impossible to talk about “Zero Dark Thirty” without talking about the political environment in which it was made and released. Controversy has dogged the fact-based drama practically from the moment it secured a release date. A meticulous study of the decade long manhunt for Osama bin Laden, the film raised the ire of Conservative commentators who have claimed that director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal of the film were granted access to classified information for the film’s production and that its original October 2012 release date was timed to remind the public that President Obama made the call to kill bin Laden. The film also found detractors in Liberal circles who claimed that it gave a tacit endorsement of torture, with crucial information that led to bin Laden’s capture coming from so called “enhanced interrogation techniques. The fact of the matter is “Zero Dark Thirty” is a cinematic achievement that will be praised and studied when the Obama presidency has faded into memory.
While unambiguously political, it’s a not film about politics. It makes no pointed statements about the Bush or Obama administrations or their respective methodologies. The entire Iraq War barely rates a mention. The film follows the efforts of a CIA analyst played by the amazing Jessica Chastain to find and kill Osama bin Laden. After a chilling replay of 911 calls made from the World Trade Center on September 11th, the film cuts to a CIA black site where a terrifying interrogator played by Jason Clarke tortures a man with connections to bin Laden. The torture is carried out with a casual brutality that hits like a punch to the stomach. There’s no “24” style heroic romanticism to the assaults, they are unrelentingly vicious and the small morsel of information that is gained from the doomed captive is so hazy and muddled it takes years of investigation to be developed into a solid lead and had the CIA analyst played by Chastain missed or not made a crucial connection, it would have been ignored all together. While it proves to be the key piece of evidence in manhunt, the film makes it clear that dogged persistence of a handful of intelligence agents was the main factor in resolving the investigation rather than government sanctioned torture.
Chastain’s determination to bring the terrorist leader to justice and later after her resolve had been hardened by personal tragedy and trauma; to outright kill him and his associates is thoroughly compelling. Years of dodging bullets, surviving bomb attacks, losing friends, enduring intuitional apathy, and an ever changing political landscape only serve as distractions. Her singular focus and unwavering devotion is enthralling and at the end of the film, after her white whale has finally been killed, Chastain lets the weight of ten long hard years touch her face and it’s devastating.
Chastain is great and her performance is reinforced by an excellent supporting cast. Kyle Chandler does strong work as a CIA station chief whose intelligence and dedication to duty are meaningless in the face of political necessity. Mark Strong creates a memorable and forceful performance out of a role that was an exposition delivery. James Gandolfini is as good as always. Joel Edgerton and Chris Pratt are great as two of the Navy SEALS that finally take down bin Laden, with Pratt being especially interesting as a man who is as causally funny as he is deadly. But the standout supporting performance here comes from Jason Clarke. His icy interrogator is fascinating, handing out brutal beatings with the same emotional investment he has when feeding a monkey a piece of his ice cream cone. Nothing is personal with his veteran operator, not an intense waterboarding session or an expensive bribe to a foreign asset or the undercutting of a colleague in an important meeting. For him everything is business even the occasional war crime and there’s no such thing as cognitive dissonance. As Clarke was the interesting thing about last year’s disappointing “Lawless”, I can’t wait to see what he does next.
In addition to cultivating excellent performances from her actors, director Kathryn Bigelow has made a film of such precision that it would shame a Swiss watchmaker. From the film’s terrifying opening to its quietly devastating ending, Zero Dark Thirty is a methodically crafted piece of work. Bigelow’s command of tone is stunning; when it needs to be the film is pulse-pounding but not in the horror film, shot of adrenaline from seeing a serial killer unexpectedly slap against a window way, its pulse-pounding like when you lose control of your car on an icy country road. Bigelow lets the audience know an innocuous situation has turned deadly a moment before her characters do and the effect is stunning. There’s no booming needle drop or erratic change in editing up to highlight the danger, just a calculated buildup of dread that only loosens up to lull you back into a false sense of security. Her direction is nothing short of masterful.
Mark Boal’s screenplay on the other hand is not. While skillfully structured, balancing the minor success and crushing failures that went along with pursuing bin Laden, his dialogue is merely workmanlike. Boal smartly grounds his language in the realm of professionals and its opacity lends it a convincing realism. There’s no single moment or exchange in the film that feels inauthentic or a line that feels off but a bit of verbal flair wouldn’t haven’t undermined the film’s aesthetic, just as it didn’t with the “Bourne” series or Stephan Gaghan’s similarly themed “Syriana.” Ultimately though, complaining about the film’s less than quotable script feels quibbling about the napkins at a five-star restaurant.
“Zero Dark Thirty” is an incredible film. It’s easily the most tension-filled film of the year; with the harrowing siege on the bin Laden compound sequence being the most nerve-racking. With no musical accompaniment, Bigelow spends twenty five minutes tracking the progress of SEAL Team Six as they raid the fortified Pakistani mansion, with the battle-hardened troops barely reacting to their helicopter crashing, the unexpected civilian attention it brings, the slow movement through bin Laden’s home, the professional handling of its occupants, the killing of the their target and finally their extremely efficient exfiltration. Watching the scene play out is like watching a great conductor lead a symphony, where joy is derived not just from the artistry on display but in the accomplishment in which it has been made manifest.
Tickets to Cleveland area showings of “Zero Dark Thirty” can be purchased here.
Mario McKellop has written about film on Examiner for the last three years and can be reached directly at firstname.lastname@example.org