Director Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to win an Academy Award for directing with 2008’s “The Hurt Locker” (which also won best picture). With “Zero Dark Thirty,” she could be poised to win another one.
The film, which chronicles the hunt for Osama bin Laden, absolutely pounds with a sense of urgency. It’s a gripping, taut tale that moves swiftly, covering lots of ground — it’s 21/2 hours long, but doesn’t feel like it.
“Zero Dark Thirty” has stirred some controversy in its dramatization of the way things unfolded. The Justice Department is investigating a case involving Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence Michael Vickers — who may be a possible candidate to be the next CIA director — in response to an accusation that he leaked restricted information to the makers of “Zero Dark Thirty,” according to McClatchy-Tribune news sources.
The film certainly feels authentic — perhaps insider knowledge lended authenticity. Screenwriter Mark Boal, who also teamed with Bigelow on “The Hurt Locker,” packs his script with details and strong characters (but strangely devoid of emotion). It doesn’t pull any punches, and presents everything matter-of-factly, without a slanted agenda. The script is complex but isn’t hard to digest. Nor does it “dumb down” any of the procedurals.
“Zero” starts on a black screen. We hear the harrowing events of 9/11. That slowly fades out, as if it were a long ago memory.
The next scene finds our protagonist, Maya (an Oscar-quality Jessica Chastain), wearing a mask in a dark room with another CIA officer, Dan (Jason Clarke). At this very moment, Dan is torturing a detainee, Ammar (these scenes are very hard to watch and smartly presented without any heightened filmmaking techniques, no score or sound design — they’re horrid enough on their own).
“Every time you lie to me,” Dan tells the detainee. “I hurt you.”
Maya and Dan leave the room to talk. And this is the first time we see Maya’s face. She’s thin, young, innocent-looking and clearly not up for this interrogation. She nonetheless encourages Dan to continue.
She follows him back into the room, but this time doesn’t wear a mask. She watches in horror, glancing away when she has to, but then makes herself look again. It’s her first sign of toughening up.
During his second questioning, Dan knocks Ammar down, subjects him to simulated drowning and forces him inside a horrifyingly small box. The violence is repulsive, although the film depicts it as necessary to the story (this has raised some controversy).
Eventually, Ammar does give them a tip, and that leads Maya on a long quest for Bin Laden’s courier, who she thinks will lead her to Bin Laden. This quest consumes her for eight years, but she never gives up, through many ups and downs.
The story is divided into chapters, which helps keep things compartmentalized. Each chapter focuses on a particular lead or facet of the investigation.
And when we finally do get to the point where Navy SEALs are flying down in helicopters to kill Bin Laden, the film blazes with action and escalated fervor. The tension is pivotal. It feels real, almost like a documentary. Bigelow certainly seems to have found her footing with war films — she likes to put us directly in the moment.
She had her job cut out for her. With such broad scope, and in a film where we know what happens at the end, Bigelow’s challenge was keeping us interested. She keeps us invested and focused.
But it’s Chastain who keeps us grounded. She is the solid core of the tale. She moves from road block to road block, toughening up in every single frame. She never lets her emotions erupt, keeping them in check. But when it does all finally come out, we feel every bit of relief that she does.
We’ll probably never know how much of the events were real versus fiction, but that has nothing to do with the film. “Zero Dark Thirty” is riveting.