On May 2nd, 2011, President Barack Obama announced to the world that Osama bin Laden had been killed by Seal Team Six in Pakistan. "Justice has been done", were his exact words used to describe the successful raid on one of the most dangerous and feared men in the world. But what exactly transpired in the almost ten year span before that triumphant morning? How did the men and women of not only this country but other countries as well manage to finally get their target? Well, that's precisely what "Zero Dark Thirty", Kathryn Bigelow's first film since her Oscar Winning "The Hurt Locker", attempts to show us.
The film opens with a text that reads: September 11th, 2001. Several minutes of a pitch black screen follow with the sounds of the horror of that very day with actual recordings of people in Manhattan dying and calling for help. It's a brutal and disturbing way to start a film, but a necessary one. It reminds the viewer why the characters in the film go to the lengths that they do to get their "white whale", as it were. As disturbing as this intro is it is nothing compared to the abrasive and no holds barred scenes to come.
The film resumes in 2003, two years after 9/11, at a CIA blacksite. The audience is introduced to Maya, played by Jessica Chastain, and Dan played by Jason Clarke. Maya is wet behind the ears when it comes to "enhanced interrogation techniques" but Dan has no problem showing her what it's all about when it comes to a young Muslim who helped fund the acts of 9/11. The scenes of water boarding are intense and visceral and truly unsettling. Bigelow and her Oscar winning writer of "The Hurt Locker" Mark Boal pull no punches, pun not intended, when it comes to showing torture. The film has already garnered considerable controversy regarding these scenes regarding their authenticity and probability. The CIA and many politicians have already come out and declared these scenes inaccurate and mere fantasy but who can say.
The film continues with Maya trudging on to find bin Laden. It's a journey that takes eight years of her life and one that claims the lives of several of her friends. Yet she doesn't quit. She keeps trucking on and only gets more determined and hungry as the movie progresses. It's a hell of a performance from Chastain and one that must've taken a lot from her to deliver, but she does it so convincingly that masterfully sometimes it's hard to remember she's acting. The determination and obsession feels real, not forced, which is something few actors actually manage to pull off. Chastain and the film are excellent, make no mistake about it, and the final thirty minutes are some of the most intense and suspenseful ever put on film. Sure, everyone knows how things will play out but the craftsmanship on display here keeps the viewer on the edge of their seats, quite literally. The in between can get a little murky with false leads, countless suspects and many wild goose chases but somehow it's all captivating and engrossing down to the last minute. It really is a wonder as to why Bigelow failed to get the Best Director nomination from the Academy for her work here. Some speculate that it's because the film is too controversial. The fact that Martin Scorsese, Oliver Stone and Paul Greengrass received Best Director nominations for their work on "The Last Temptation of Christ", "JFK" and "United 93" respectively debunks that theory as those three films are some of the most controversial ever made. Whatever the reason, it's an absolute shame. Bigelow's work here is masterful, bringing out realistic and restrained performances from her actors while simultaneously making what could have been a very boring and drawn out three hours a near-masterpiece of suspense and espionage that at times feels too real to be just a movie.
Whether there's a shred of truth to the characters, events and processes of "Zero Dark Thirty" is irrelevant. What is relevant is that Bigelow, Mark Boal and the rest of the crew and cast, especially Chastain and Clarke, have crafted an intense and moving film about an important period and event in recent history that will likely only gain more appreciation as the years go by. So many producers and studios rush to make movies about true stories without truly thinking them through or doing their research and therefore the films come off as rushed and flat. Sometimes the movies stray so far from truth that they are laughable. Who knows if "Zero Dark Thirty" has gotten all the facts right, but to be honest who cares? Do we really want to know the dirt that goes on behind closed doors? Do we really care about the process or is the result all that matters in the big picture? Whatever your answer to that question, "Zero Dark Thirty" is worth your time and definitely deserving of the awards and accolades it has been reaping up.