Synopsis: A chronicle of the decade-long hunt for al-Qaeda terrorist leader Osama bin Laden after the September 2001 attacks, and his death at the hands of the Navy SEAL Team 6 in May 2011. (Source)
If Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln was an optimistic look at time when noble men strove to accomplish a good deed no matter what the cost, Zero Dark Thirty is the film that snaps us back into the now, showing us the grim and infinitely more complex nature of our current circumstance objectively and without pretense. It’s not a film that tries to play the blame game by any measure, but one that simply asks us what the costs of our retaliation for 9/11 were, and more importantly, what now? As such, it’s a film thats bold and brave, not afraid to be provocative or bring up things which no one dares to ask. Jessica Chastain is powerful, and Kathryn BIgelow’s masterful direction is taught and unforgettable.
The film centers around a young CIA officer Maya (Jessica Chastain), chronicling her 10+ year involvement with the manhunt for Osama Bin Laden. We get to follow her as a young recruit, headstrong from the beginning, as her job slowly consumes her and those around her. It’s a fairly simple premise, but that’s actually what makes it so great; it’s clear, precise and focused, without nearly any stray tangents or distractions. As the plot moves along at a quick pace, we can feel the effects that time and desperation have on it’s main characters as blind ambition blurs the line between determination, duty and justice, all culminating in the now legendary raid which lead to the capture of one of history’s most notorious men.
What makes the film transcendent beyond any number of topical political stories is that at it’s heart, it’s not just interested in dissecting a monumental historic event, but is a universal character study that roots itself deeply into primal emotions and fears. Using it’s procedural setting as a backdrop, it illustrates a small, focused team of intelligence agents, far removed from public perception of their country whose desperation takes on a life of it’s own as the months become years. It’s this study, along with Bigelow’s journalistic approach to the subject matter which make the proceedings play out like a mesmerizing and genuine documentary, even if the entire thing locks into place, revealing a smart, intelligent screenplay by Mark Boal. In addition, it’s achievement is also in mixing this human aspect into a pulse-pounding thriller that perfectly captures the convergence of accessible pop art and towering self-reflection. What’s more, while it’s sincere in mining the noble intentions of it’s story, it would also be wrong to call the film patriotic propaganda, as it’s depictions of brutal torture lend a sense of disgust and thought-provoking sadness which eventually rob the raid on Osama’s compound of any real celebratory weight. In the end, the film may avoid any true political stance, but it’s exactly the type of honest film that Hollywood needs.
While the film features an ensemble cast, Jessica Chastain’s Maya leads the show. This is her story, through and through, and in her arc mimics the general public’s attitude towards the massive manhunt. She’s fierce, smart and unflinching when it comes to do what she feels needs to be done, but in the end, there’s a surprising outcome which rings true and poignant. Chastain has been slowly working her way up most-wanted list, wowing us time and time again with the dedication she puts into each of her roles and this one is no different. There’s no question in my mind that she packs the emotional wallop of the year in the journey she takes here. She’s a strong female character who’s easily more complex than most character’s we’ve seen lately. Jason Clarke is the second most interesting character as Dan, who introduces Maya and us into the world of CIA black sites and covert ops. His hard exterior carries some unlikely surprises and contrasts nicely with Chastain. It’s also nice to see Joel Edgerton in anything, even though he’s just a minor SEAL character, while there are some jarring cameos by indie darling Mark Duplass and even an blink-and-you’ll-miss appearance by John Barrowman, which while send sci-fi geeks everywhere into a minor fit of glee. Lastly, yes, that is Chris Pratt as a SEAL member who adds a bit of levity without taking away from the seriousness of the entire thing.
Admittedly, I was one of the people who initially scoffed at the idea of making an action film on the capture and execution of Osama Bin Laden; I mean, how ridiculous and irreverent does that sound? But Kathryn Bigelow and crew have delivered something unexpected, relevant and brave. The film works on both a thrilling surface level (the near 40-minute raid on the compound is worth admission alone) but still is thought provoking without false posturing. Zero Dark Thirty is filmmaking with a brain and real purpose — it just has to be seen to be believed.
Crome Rating: 4.5/5