With Jessica Chastain, Joel Edgerton, Jason Clarke, Chris Pratt, James Gandolfini. Written by Mark Boal. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow. Rated R for strong violence including brutal disturbing images, and for language. 157 minutes.
With apologies to comedian Bill Maher, whose shtick is being borrowed here: New rule – Politicians who have yet to see a movie should shut up about it and avoid embarrassing themselves. A number of idiots in Congress (redundant: see redundant) have attacked ZERO DARK THIRTY for claiming that it was torture that allowed us to track down Osama bin Laden. No, that is not what the movie does and the idiots on both sides of the aisle should try seeing the movie before offering their uninformed opinions.
Director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal – the team behind the solid if somewhat overrated “The Hurt Locker” – have turned “Zero Dark Thirty” into what will stand as the definitive dramatization of the hunt for the terrorist behind the attacks on 9/11. Originally conceived as a movie about how the Bush Administration allowed him to escape at Tora Bora in Afghanistan, it was a project that got re-conceived after President Barack Obama and a team of Navy Seals gave it a new ending. As such, it is a riveting film about the real work of espionage, as opposed to the entertaining fantasies of spy thrillers like the James Bond or “Mission: Impossible” movies.
Yes, there are scenes where we see captured terrorists waterboarded. This is part of the sorry history of our response to terrorism and pretending it isn’t does no one any good. We also see that not much useful information is gleaned this way, although one CIA agent (Jason Clarke) gets some tidbits not so much from torture but from the good cop/bad cop routine that is part of any police procedural. Those scraps would not have led to the discovery of bin Laden’s hideout.
The bulk of the film is about how one agent – supposedly based on a real person but here presented as a young operative named Maya (Jessica Chastain) – refuses to give up. She follows every lead, and pushes the CIA to continue to pursue the trail even when it seems to have grown cold. Ultimately, she does come up with a location in Pakistan where he may be hiding. What leads us this far is detective work, bribery, satellite surveillance, and all the tools at the command of the modern spy. Torture, as we see in brief clip noting the start of the Obama presidency, is thrown out as a tool of America’s war against terror.
The final half hour or so of the film depicts the actual raid, where the tension is high and we briefly (and non-exploitatively) get to see what reality denied us: a glimpse of bin Laden’s corpse. As with “Argo” and “Lincoln” – two other superb 2012 movies where we go in already knowing how the story ends – we are impressed with the process and the dedication of the individuals involved. Osama bin Laden masterminded one of the great atrocities of the early 21st century and there is great satisfaction in seeing how American know-how and stick-to-it-iveness ensured he would pay the price for his evil.
This is largely an ensemble piece, but there’s no question that Chastain is the standout. She was hyped as the hot new actress in 2011 with appearances in “Take Shelter,” “Tree Of Life,” “Coriolanus” and “The Help,” but it was mostly hype. She came across as a beautiful and not untalented, but nothing extraordinary. Here, she finally lives up to the what her promoters have claimed. Her portrayal of Maya – from nervous newcomer to seasoned veteran ready to stand up to the head of the CIA (James Gandolfini) – makes her the odds-on favorite for the Best Actress Oscar.
“Zero Dark Thirty” makes you appreciate how people at the top may set the policies and directions for the country, but it’s the people in the trenches who make things happen. In spite of some Washington nitwits who falsely claimed this is a movie that glorifies torture, it is quite the contrary. It is a movie that shows that torture doesn’t work, but that perseverance and determination does.***
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His first novel, Shh! It’s A Secret: A Novel About Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide will be released this month. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.