ZERO DARK THIRTY Movie Review
Back in 2009, Kathryn Bigelow’s critically-acclaimed wartime character study The Hurt Locker was held up as part of a belated cultural response to America’s recent military excursions in the Middle East. Even though it won Oscars for best picture, director, and screenplay, its lukewarm commercial reception pointed to a greater sense of detachment from ongoing overseas conflict – a shame, since it’s a deceptively simple and bracing film about the burdens of responsibility that was more or less perceived as well-timed, conscientious reportage. For her follow-up, Zero Dark Thirty, Bigelow lunges for the jugular and ratchets up the ambition – and the excitement – with a docudrama about the ten-year manhunt for Osama bin Laden. The result is her magnum opus, a nail-biting thrill ride firmly ensconced in the “go big or go home” school of filmmaking, a movie that’s just too large and too imposing to ignore.
Bigelow re-teams with Hurt Locker scribe Mark Boal for a story about the men and women who doggedly pursued the al-Qaeda leader for the better part of a decade, based on first-person accounts of military and intellgence personnel. The film zeroes in on Maya (Jessica Chastain), a determined CIA analyst who follows a daisy chain of evidence to uncover the identity of bin Laden’s bagman. It’s tempting to say that Chastain’s quietly ferocious performance gives Zero Dark Thirty its moral center, but the film is not a referendum on the political and military strategies used to pursue the War on Terror. Her confidence is righteous and her justifications tacitly accepted; her efforts are not so much a barometer for the war’s “success” as they are a series of signposts for the years of red herrings and tragic setbacks that defined the mission.
Much like its protagonist, Zero Dark Thirty is a cold, clinical, relentless piece of work. It’s also a particularly high-strung film that periodically feels the need to acknowledge its own self-importance. Redundancies pad its first half as Boal feels the need to name-check every major terrorist attack since 9/11, foreign or domestic. But the film’s minor pacing flaws are more than redeemed by its tense standalone sequences that utilize the strengths of its talented ensemble cast, from the alternately genial and intimidating demeanor of Jason Clarke (Lawless) in its controversial interrogation scenes to the mordant humor of Chris Pratt and Joel Edgerton as Navy SEALs participating in the grand finale – a daring midnight raid of bin Laden’s secret compound.
By taking care to establish the testosterone-laden nature of Maya’s workplace – Mark Strong even drops by to deliver a volcanic monologue reminiscent of Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross – Bigelow adds to the monumental pressure on her heroine. To watch her do her job is to experience all the stress and tedium that entails (even when we know how the story ends) until it is finally released in an overwhelming rush of achievement. Exactly what that achievement is – and whether it’s unequivocally good, bad, or incomplete – is smartly left for the viewer to decide. Zero Dark Thirty is already an achievement in and of itself, as disturbing, thought-provoking, and entertaining as a matter-of-fact presentation can possibly be.
“Zero Dark Thirty” opened 12/19 in limited release and opens everywhere this Friday.