Spanning two presidential administrations and approximately eight years, “Zero Dark Thirty” is as dispassionate, clinical and grindingly thorough as an obsessed tactical procedural can get. But at two and a half hours, the hunt for Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden is also as gripping and riveting as any film in this fact-finding methodology-based genre.
From director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal, the team that brought you “The Hurt Locker,” “Zero Dark Thirty” -- military jargon for 30 minutes after midnight -- is as relentless and committed to its convictions and presentation as its main protagonist Maya (played by Jessica Chastain with firebrand passion), a CIA intelligence agent unremittingly driven by her pursuit of Bin Laden. The film slowly coils with an absorbing intensity. For better or worse, Bigelow extracts the details with myopic, laser precision until her characters find clues, inklings and suppositions to inform their argument concerning the whereabouts of the “world’s most dangerous man.”
Often detached, the picture opens up with a black-on-white title card that reads that the film is “based on firsthand accounts of actual events.” From there, a black screen chillingly collects an aural montage of phone calls, pleas and desperate voices from the events of September 11, 2001, that goes on for what seems like an excruciating eternity. Beginning in 2003, Chastain’s Maya finds herself working alongside other intelligence CIA officers in Pakistan played by Jason Clarke, Jennifer Ehle and Harold Perrineau (all of whom arguably have the most substantial parts in the film other than the lead).
Torture, waterboarding and Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse is the norm of the day, and the picture essentially begins with Clarke’s senior agent character brutally interrogating and torturing a prisoner. It’s matter-of-fact, visceral stuff, like most of the action set pieces in the film. Their job is to break prisoners, and this ugly, naked, dirty job is done with unyielding and punishing exactitude.
As Clarke, Ehle and Chastain's team grates prisoners for intel, they scrimp and scrape for particulars, but mostly come up with dead-end intimations that they cannot connect to anything substantial. 2004 sees an atrocious Saudi Arabia attack, 2005 depicts the London bombings that the Taliban took credit for, and the years slog on as these agents pore over a slough of minutiae. The job takes its toll, too. Maya seems spiritually crushed while obstinately hammering over interrogation sessions, and in need of a clear head, Clarke’s character eventually bows out, taking a desk job in Virginia, knowing he’s maxed out his mental limit in the Middle East.
Essentially the needle in the haystack of all haystacks, Maya eventually comes upon a thread that she zeroes in on: a courier, who could be Osama Bin Laden’s personal messenger. The thread goes dark over the years, and it’s even one her station chief (played by Kyle Chandler) attempts to get her to drop, but Maya’s fixation with this courier Abu Ahmed – said to be UBL’s "favorite courier and right-hand man,” only grows in fervor when her closest Pakistan peer is killed in a double-crossing bomb attack. Bureaucracy is, of course, also a factor. Her bosses' objectives are to protect the homeland – Osama is thought to be a relic that doesn’t matter. But Maya’s convinced that Bin Laden is crucial to decimating the Al Qaeda infrastructure, and she risks everything to prove she’s right.
While grueling in its presentation of the connect-the-dots facts, “Zero Dark Thirty” is still more a transfixing drama, flecked with powerhouse, engaging action beats, than it is a slog. Largely unadorned -- for example Alexandre Desplat’s score is mostly muted throughout until the final capture sequence – apart from innovative low-light photography and clipped, tension-building editing, “Zero Dark Thirty” is told in a straightforward but fascinating manner.
“Zero Dark Thirty” may be polarizing for some, and will surely test casual moviegoers – hence the move to push the film into January wide release so the critical buzz has time to build. It’s dense, crushingly systematic and disciplined, with a payoff that everyone already knows about. But its commitment to its vision is gripping and engrossing (though some might reductively describe it as Nancy Drew on the hunt for the Boogey Man in the Middle East if they felt like being trite).
Co-starring Mark Strong and James Gandolfini as CIA bigwigs, and Joel Edgerton, Chris Pratt, Taylor Kinney, Scott Adkins, Frank Grillo and more as members of the Team 6 navy seals (Mark Duplass and Edgar Ramirez also co-star in this expansive cast), Bigelow’s nerve-racking drama is an ensemble picture, but certainly centers around its single-minded protagonist played by Chastain.
And while it's not as user-friendly as “Les Misérables” or “Life of Pi” – both more emotionally engaging pictures -- it cannot be denied that Bigelow and Boal have scored again. While not as taut and lean as the more action-based “The Hurt Locker,” ‘ZDT’ is an electric, sprawling and ambitious effort that’s easy to become absorbed by, and a picture that should impress those keen on the director’s intelligent, composed and determined brand of filmmaking. [B+]