Zero Dark Thirty
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow
Come for the torture, stay for the bracing reorientation of a real post-9/11 narrative around an unstinting female professional. For all the uninformed debate about the film’s contextual depiction of war-crime interrogation, Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty also happens to frame the frontier-justice, mano-a-mano war on terrorism, via the pursuit of Osama bin Laden, as a story of one woman’s courageous dedication to a cause and loyalty to a friend. A post-Zodiac procedural that goes long to show the dead ends and the numbing middles, the suspensefully staged film blurs vengeance and justice, true to the welter of the emotions in “the war on terrorism,” but it also makes the viewer work—and postpone hope along with the hero.
At the risk of embracing jargon (I love The Hurt Locker, but that title...): CIA tradecraft is what Zero Dark Thirty tracks over the course of a decade. Opening with headspace—black-screen audio of 911 calls from the World Trade Center—the film moves swiftly to bodily space with scenes of torture and interrogation by a bro-dropping operative (Jason Clarke), accompanied with reservations by Maya (Jessica Chastain). Her investigation, within an often skeptical intelligence coterie, is a work of composite history, meaning that she turns from held-back teamworker into underestimated risk-taker hectoring superiors (not unlike any number of cop dramas) into something like a ubiquitous embodiment of American know-how into, in a stunning finale, herself.
Like Lincoln, Bigelow’s most ambitious film tells the story “you think you know” (per the ads) through down-and-dirty process; like an entirely different, partly exploitative reimagining Django Unchained, we are subject to uncomfortable depictions of historically charged violence. Zero Dark Thirty sets the viewer on edge through Bigelow’s adeptness at preserving shock, physical and moral, whether in individual acts or the terrorist bombings (July 21, 2005, London; the Islamabad Marriott in 2008) that are part of the chronology. The nocturnal raid on bin Laden’s compound—a breathtaking 30-minute sequence shot with both by-night and by-modified-infrared lights, and starting with a haunting Angel of Death helicopter approach—withholds slam-dunk triumph. Torture is shown, not supported (nor, crucially, fruitful); it is one part of a film that’s taken up more with the first Obama administration’s stated refocus on finding bin Laden (as well as showing his televised no-torture promise).
Credited as a Mark Boal movie, Bigelow’s collaboration with the journalist-screenwriter toes the line on accuracy and storytelling—or, put another way, it chooses concessions that did not stand out to me, nor does it depend on Syriana fog, Tom Clancy wonkery, Homeland serial twists, or United 93 terror. The debates shown in the corridors of power have an on-the-run quality, sometimes with distracting casting: James Gandolfini as a CIA overlord, or Mark Duplass (and then there’s Carlos himself, Edgar Ramirez, popping up in the field). Chastain’s face-offs with superiors don’t play to either her or the filmmakers’ strong suits, but the perilously overexposed actress gives a performance befitting a movie that recognizes a story can be greater and smaller than one person. Zero Dark Thirty is an extraordinary account of a period, and of an event whose most famous publicity photo was a roomful of people watching.
Opens December 19