Zero Dark Thirty (United States, 2012)

December 18, 2012
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Zero Dark Thirty Poster

Zero Dark Thirty is a compelling contemporary thriller with the added benefit of also being an engrossing character study. Like Argo, it interweaves elements of the historical record with fictional embellishments and speculation to create a tapestry depicting the sometimes fatal front-line struggles of intelligence agency operatives. Unlike Argo, however, it provides a fascinating and powerfully portrayed central character. With all apologies to Ben Affleck, Jessica Chastain rivets the attention.

The story, culled as it has been from recent headlines, is not full of surprises or revelations. We all know it how it will end: with Osama bin Laden in a body bag. The fascination and suspense comes from seeing how the events leading to that moment are dramatized. Zero Dark Thirty opens on 9/11 (with the fall of the Twin Towers being depicted only in sound as the screen remains dark) and concludes on May 2, 2011. In between, it follows the efforts of a CIA agent, Maya (Jessica Chastain), to locate Osama bin Laden in the Afghanistan/Pakistan region and the mission, led by Navy SEAL Patrick (Joel Edgerton), to "take out" UBL.

The chronicle of events unfolds like a superior spy story, with Maya initially being thrust into a situation where she's in over her head. Apprenticed to a veteran interrogator named Dan (Jason Clarke), she witnesses him torture and intimidate a suspected al-Qaeda prisoner. After Dan returns to the United States, Maya takes over his role; she becomes tenacious and proves capable of intimidating her boss, Special Agent Joseph Bradley (Kyle Chandler). Once her cover is blown and she is forced to return home, she continues to push the operation from Langley. Although the last 30 minutes follows the SEALs, Maya is never far from the viewer's attention.

Zero Dark Thirty is as much about the central character as it is about the hunt for bin Laden, and the genius of the production, directed by Kathryn Bigelow and written by Mark Boal, is that it successfully balances these two elements. Maya is not a traditionally "three-dimensional character." We know little about her past and nothing about her future. But we understand her fully in the present. She's Ahab and bin Laden is the whale. She will go to any and all extremes to kill him. Obsession is her defining characteristic; she is fully invested in the hunt, to the point where she proves unable to answer two simple questions: "Do you have any friends?" and "Where do you want to go now?"

The most suspenseful sequence in Zero Dark Thirty is not the climactic assault on bin Laden's compound. Instead, it's the depiction of the Camp Chapman attack. This event, which occurred on December 30, 2009, led news reports that day, but Zero Dark Thirty puts it in context. It's a harrowing 15-minute sequence that is among the most tense segments in any 2012 motion picture, and recalls Bigelow's The Hurt Locker for white-knuckle entertainment.

The script uses the government's official account of the hunt and killing for bin Laden as its main template. This is enhanced by off-the-record details provided by sources cultivated by Bigelow and Boal. The strong sense of verisimilitude is not surprising. The filmmakers are circumspect in their identification of characters based on real-life individuals; most have had name changes. Jennifer Lynne Matthews, for example, is called "Jessica" in movie (and is played by Jennifer Ehle). The character portrayed by James Gandolfini is obviously meant to be Leon Panetta, but he is never mentioned by name and the credits cite him simply as "CIA Director." And Maya is a semi-fictionalized analog for a counterpart.

Jessica Chastain's performance will at minimum garner an Oscar nomination. Alongside Jennifer Lawrence, she is considered a front-runner. Chastain gives us something we too rarely get on-screen: a powerful, uncompromising female character with the strength and presence to dominate in a traditional male genre: the thriller. Chastain makes Maya vital and incomparable. The success of the film relies heavily on this character, and the vividness of Maya is determined by the forcefulness of Chastain's performance.

Zero Dark Thirty's cinematography draws the viewer into the action without resorting to shaky camera work. Yes, many of the shots are hand-held but they are stable enough that they don't cause motion sickness and don't reduce the action to murky incoherence. Likewise, Alexandre Desplat's score is used sparingly. The assault on bin Laden's compound mixes traditional third-person shots with greenish night scope images. The al-Qaeda leader's death is shown but in such a manner that we never get a clear shot of his face.

Does the movie "glorify" torture, as has been reported in some circles? No, although the implication is that some useful information may have been gleaned from the "enhanced interrogation" of a suspect. Zero Dark Thirty doesn't shy away from depicting ways in which American and pro-American forces questioned those who may have had operational knowledge of al-Qaeda, but it's a stretch to argue that the movie is presenting a defense of the validity of information gained through these means. In fact, the torture scenes (which are about as graphic as one could envision for an R-rated motion picture) are designed more to illustrate aspects of Maya's character than they are to advance the narrative.

Zero Dark Thirty is unquestionably one of the best films of 2012. Even though it recounts events covered exhaustively in the news and by documentaries, in portraying things from Maya's perspective, we are given a fresh vantage point that makes everything seem more immediate. The running time is slightly over 2 1/2 hours, but the movie passes in the twinkling of an eye, proving that sometimes a seemingly inflated length is necessary to tell the story. Bigelow has turned in her second consecutive piece of expert filmmaking.

Zero Dark Thirty (United States, 2012)

Run Time: 2:37
U.S. Release Date: 2012-12-19
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1