‘Zero Dark Thirty’ is impressive for its neutral depiction of one of history’s greatest manhunts

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Zero Dark Thirtyzero-dark-thirty1-poster

Directed by Kathryn Bigelow

Written by Mark Boal

U.S.A., 2012

The fascinating directing and screenwriting duo of Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal have consciously taken an emotionally and intellectually provocative route in their collective filmmaking career in the past few years. Their interest with regards to telling rich, compelling stories on the big screen, judging by the subject matter of 2009’s The Hurt Locker and now Zero Dark Thirty, is the ensuing foreign policy of the United States in the years following the unimaginable terrorist attacks of September 1th 2001, in essence, the so-baptized war on terror. Whereas the previous award winning effort took audiences to the dusty and all too often bloodied terrain of Iraq when the Americans dispatched of Saddam Hussein and contended with insurgent forces thereafter, the new film invites audiences into the tension-filled, stuffy backrooms of the CIA as they tracked down 9/11’s mastermind, Osama bin Laden. Much like its predecessor, Zero Dark Thirty is as far removed from being jingoistic as can be. It is a serious minded, mature affair depicting just how difficult, risky and energy consuming the operation was.

One of the most interesting angles the movie takes is not to settle on retelling the climax of the hunt for the most wanted man in the world, but exploring the decade long search which led the CIA to finally achieve its ultimate objective. Zero Dark Thirty has as its principle character Maya (Jessica Chastain), a relatively new intelligence officer freshly arrived from state-side to the heart of the proverbial jungle where the investigations and interrogations of suspected Al-Qaida contacts occur. In fact, in the opening scene the exact location of where a cringe inducing torture method is practiced by Dan (Jason Clark) on a hapless captive is not even disclosed. Maya observes the technique and, while visibly uncomfortable with the methodology, quickly understands that the moral ground on which she and her colleagues stand shall be challenged as they collect and analyze all the information they can either sniff out or extract. Together with many other dedicated officers, among them Jessica (Jennifer Ehle), Joseph (Kyle Chandler) and various higher ranking officials (Mark Strong among them), the CIA experience a number of highs and lows on the road to an oddly located and curiously fortified house in Pakistan not too far removed from a military training ground…

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There are a great many reasons to salute this technically proficient piece of cinema. First and foremost, with a cast as diverse and richly talented as that found here, it would have been quite stunning had the acting not been up to par. Virtually everyone involved, including those relegated to bit roles, is quite good. Kyle Chandler is appropriately cast as Maya’s smoothly authoritative  immediate superior just as Mark Strong brings a striking touch of occasional zeal as the more direct liaison between the CIA and the White House. Jennifer Ehle is excellent as the slightly more experience ally to Jessica Chastain’s Maya yet always willing to go along with the newcomer’s naturally intelligent instincts. Jason Clark is superb in the role of a on the whole decent chap who happens to excel at the grisly task of torturing detainees for intelligence, eventually growing tired of the task (as any normal human would, logically), opting rather for a job for which sees him work with the bureaucracy back home. At the center is of course Jessica Chastain, who in a surprisingly short time span has proven to be a true chameleon, delving very deep into each character she portrays with the utmost conviction. Here, as Maya, the complications of her role reach far beyond the mere matter of playing the young, ambitious and perhaps a little over-confident arrival in the team. As the review shall explore more in depth in just a bit, she is forced to adapt to her new role and its surroundings, neither of which permit emotions to blind one’s focus and where the battles must sometimes be waged as much against her own organization as the real enemy and time itself.

Apart from the acting, the sharp editing, the effectively tense military assault on Osama bin Laden’s secret home in the film’s climax, two of the film’s greatest strengths are in its script and, by extension, the director’s translation of the story from page to screen. Even though Mark Boal won the Academy Award for The Hurt Locker, a case be made that his new film is much more impressive. Two things in particular help make Zero Dark Thirty‘s script and translation of said script especially engaging for a viewer, the first being the effort it invests in taking the time to properly examine how taxing the mission to find bin Laden was. It is natural to want to bring to justice the man responsible for what occurred on that nightmarish day back in 2001, yet discovering just how many man hours, how much money, time and lives, both friendly and enemy, were lost in the process is, frankly, stunning. For anyone, such as this movie reviewer, who knows very little of how an organization like the CIA functions apart from what other Hollywood films showcase (and even then, not as exhaustively as here), the movie is an eye opener. To gather so many people with different notions, working in different areas of the globe in a job where so many decisions can mean life or death is simultaneously impressive and mind boggling. In the end, it all concerns a single human being. A human guilty of large scale murder of innocents, granted, but only one man nevertheless. In a very smart move, the film neither implicitly criticizes nor praises the CIA ‘s work, it simply depicts it. This might be a fictional account inspired by facts, but it does feel legitimate, which in of itself is an accomplishment.

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The second aspect of how Bigelow and Boal crafted this cinematic translation  which lends itself impressive perspective is the importance of time in all of its facets. The most obvious argument here is the stretch of ten years required to finally pinpoint their infamous target’s location. Despite all the technology and manpower at their disposal, the mission moved along at a far slower pace than many might have anticipated. At various times throughout the picture Bigelow will highlight the month and year of each new chapter in this historic odyssey. From 2001 to 2003, to 2005, to 2006, etc. Despite that, the film never forgoes the idea that a sense of urgency is pervasive among the members of the mandated team, the scene in which  Mark Strong’s character explodes in frustration proving that despite the search eating up a lot of time due to uncontrollable variables, they cannot waste any more it.  Additionally, The longer the investigation goes on, the more steadfast Maya becomes. The pressures of the situation as well as the new leads and hints which she and her colleagues unveil over time only strengthen her will. Perhaps the most poignant way in which the question of time dictates Maya’s behaviour is following the death of a colleague she knew well. Shocked and saddened by this dour turn of events, when asked by someone what she will do, Maya quickly responds that she will track down and kill Osama bin Laden. Quick and to the point. It is what she set out to do in the first place anyways. There is no time to mourn, the job must continue.

It is difficult to ascertain if this type of response is due to the sublime filmmaking or this reviewer ‘outsider’s perspective’ (not being American and all), but Zero Dark Thirty is not an emotional experience in the traditional sense. It is a fascinating study of the institution that is the CIA and in particular the work ethic of one its youngest and brightest employees. Besides, work ethic and professionalism drives these people as they perform their duties, not bloodlust, so therefore the decision to have the film’s tone as austere as it is was wisest.

-Edgar Chaput

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