‘Zero Dark Thirty’ is a riveting, taught, and absorbing action-drama that chronicles the 10-year-plus hunt for Osama bin Laden. Beginning in 2001, global terrorist event after event is portrayed in a linear, documentary-style timeline. Each event is punctuated by the intelligence community’s search for clues as to bin Laden’s whereabouts. ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ culminates in a real-time portrayal of the SEALS’ raid on bin Laden’s Pakistan compound.
Jessica Chastain’s fiery Academy Award-nominated performance as CIA Agent Maya, the female intelligence operative reportedly behind finding bin Laden, nearly flies off the screen with its intensity. Maya is portrayed as a methodical, hyperaware, tenacious agent who, nearly to the expense of any other social engagement, eats, drinks, and breathes the intelligence work behind dismantling Al-Qaeda and its leader. In following her zealous pursuit of any clue (watching surveillance, reviewing information coerced from detainees, being present during torture of detainees), the viewer feels drawn into the events as if they are almost a first-person experience. Chastain is a very able guide in whom the audience has faith to lead them out of the morass of befuddling details. Her pursuit, ultimately, becomes our pursuit.
At 157-minutes running time, the film moves quickly and gives the viewer little time for any idle thoughts. There is a kind of a visceral feel to director Kathryn Bigelow’s film, for example, actors are often shot in close-up to heighten the intensity of the emotional experience. Also, almost every nerve-racking sub-segment of the film results in torture, gunplay, car chase, explosions, and/or death, leading the viewer to feel an increased sense of threat while in the movie’s thrall. The film’s last act changes gears from the fervid focus on Agent Maya’s pursuit to, instead, the depiction of the 12:30 a.m. (hence the title ‘zero dark thirty’) compound raid. The nearly minute-by-minute depiction of the actual event (from the SEALS’ takeoff to the post-mortem gathering of hard drives and files from the bin Laden home) is stunning and shocking. Bigelow films much of the nighttime raid in night vision with a shaky-cam effect, serving to certainly increase the viewer’s uneasiness and perception of intensity.
Much has been said in the press about the portrayal of torture of detainees in the movie. Although it is certainly highly unsettling, very difficult to watch, and most assuredly grounds for continued political discussion, the depiction of water-boarding and other such coercion techniques are not beyond what has been seen in recent years on film (e.g., scenes in the film ‘Safe House’). Additionally, the movie does not function as a moral or political statement -- those judgments are left up to the viewer.
‘Zero Dark Thirty’ is conceptually fascinating in that the audience is already aware of most of the terrorist events that it details, as well as, already know about the film’s ending and bin Laden’s final outcome. It is Bigelow’s direction that clearly ties together the 12-year pursuit, as well as, Chastain’s forceful performance as a woman who will never give up, that makes the movie so tangible and compelling. ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ is certainly one of the best movies of the year.
‘Zero Dark Thirty’ is rated R for strong violence, including brutal disturbing images, and for language. It opens Friday in San Antonio.