If any team besides director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal had decided to create a film about the search for and killing of Osama bin Laden, they probably would have decided to pull some punches, perhaps with the cushion of a human story amidst the strenuous ten-year project to hunt down the infamous al-Qaeda leader. But it is Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal who created the film, and the product of their collaboration is an unflinching, brutal, no holds barred approach on this story ripped fresh from headlines.
The film opens to cries of help canvassed by a black sreen- it’s a quick deduction to make that we’re listening to the terrified voices of 9/11 victims, the moments after the first attack but before the real terror sets in.
This sets the tone for the entire movie- we’re led to a black site in Pakistan where Maya (Jessica Chastain) spends the first months of her assignment away from D.C. Her partner, Dan (Jason Clarke), tortures a detainee with alleged links to Saudi terrorists, from methods such as waterboarding to other, more humiliating forms of torment.
But it’s not sadistic on his part- gone are images of action movie tropes, the James Bond villain with the whip in his hand- you know this is real, and you realize that Dan’s not enjoying it. “It’s cool that you’re so strong and I respect it.” Dan says to the detainee. “But everybody breaks, bro.” Maya, obviously, enjoys it less than Dan- she hasn’t developed a callous to it yet, so she has trouble hiding her shock, but like Dan she realizes the necessity of the situation.
And that’s why the controversy over the torture in this movie is ridiculous- it’s not portrayed positively. This is one of the essential themes that Boal is trying to convey- frustration. These people have been working for years on a project to hunt down one man with no luck, their only link to him a guy who maybe knows a guy who maybe knows a guy who’s connected to Bin Laden.
Maya spends years grasping at shreds of information and hunches that she hopes will get her to Bin Laden. As her own frustration deepens in the situation, torture as a means to get answers isn’t as much of a problem for her anymore. Eventually connections are made that leads her to the compound where Bin Laden may or may not be hiding- is it worth pursuing?
On multiple occasions, the words, “FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION” will pop up on screen. What are they asking us to consider? The means that one should follow to track down one man? The amount we’ll alter our own ideals to get a job done?
One of my favorite scenes in the film is when Maya and her fellow officer Jessica talk about what motivates operatives to resort to the measures that they eventually have to. Money? They dismiss that immediately. Ideology? The same basic concept of money. This movie isn’t about politics. It’s about a group of people in a room realizing that there the only ones left who are responsible for solving the situation. There’s no on another floor, just them. Boal brilliantly and subtly captures anxiety, fear and humanism without ever compromising fact.
The film isn’t the blood-pumping, set piece-fueled masterpiece that Bigelow’s previous work was, and playing off real events poses a bigger challenge for her. But like Boal, she doesn’t compromise her picture. The situation isn’t sexy, like Argo, but then again, Argo had more to play off of. Unlike Affleck, Bigelow doesn’t go for making an entertaining suspense story. The suspense she creates is real, and the dramatization is gripping. She focuses on key aspects- the tortures, the bombings, and the frustration- and this is where she strikes gold- her characters.
Bigelow finds her muse in Chastain, who portrays her character without a single flaw. We can feel he callouses growing, feel her perspective shifting, feel her blood turning to ice. In February, when the clips are being played for the Best Actress nominees (and she’ll surely be there), they’ll probably show the scene where Chastain gets to cut down Kyle Chandler. But her true moments reside in introspection, particularly in, “I’m gonna smoke everybody involved in this op, and then I’m gonna kill bin Laden.”
The film’s true power is found at its stunning climax, zero dark thirty (midnight) on May 2nd, 2011. The raid on bin Laden’s compound commands the viewer’s attention, and much like the final chase scene in Argo, we know how it’ll end, but still can’t help but hope.
Although it occasionally feels more like a work of journalism than a movie, Zero Dark Thirty is a searing, intelligent depiction that provokes more thought than any other film this year.
This article was written by a Hypable user! Learn more and write your own right here.