REVIEW: Zero Dark Thirty

20 12 2012

If you asked me to do word associations for the subgenre procedural, I’d probably start with long, tedious, cold, and other such synonyms.  But I gladly say that none of these apply to director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal’s “Zero Dark Thirty,” the story of the ten-year hunt for Osama bin Laden.  Spoiler alert … he dies at the end.

Though I’m sure the pursuit was a lot messier than what we saw on the screen (and plenty took place in the shadows that we will never know), Boal makes the chase relatively easy to follow given all the leads and locations the CIA follows.  He perfectly strikes the delicate balance between capturing the fine details of the operation while also keeping the big picture squarely in focus.

And Bigelow matches his careful dance every step of the way.  Essentially, she takes the unbelievable suspense she was able to create in “The Hurt Locker” and puts it on a macro scale.  It’s not just Sgt. James anymore; it’s the United States of America.  It’s a goose chase so wild and riveting that the two and a half hours will feel like twenty minutes.

In the opening scenes of the film when the detainee program is yielding little to track down Bin Laden, “Zero Dark Thirty” had me at a distance, interested but not fully engaged.  Yet two hours later as Seal Team Six embarked on the raid that would ultimately take out the most wanted terrorist, I found myself on the edge of my seat with my heart racing at a million miles per hour.  And keep in mind, I knew what was going to happen!  Bigelow’s thriller is tightly constructed with not a moment wasted as it builds towards the inevitable payoff.

Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty

It may be Bigelow’s film behind the camera, but on screen, “Zero Dark Thirty” is all Jessica Chastain.  As Maya, the CIA agent whose determination to kill Bin Laden bordered on obsession, she owns the film and gives us an entry point to connect to the film on a human level.  Unlike her sugary-sweet Celia Foote from “The Help” or her heavenly Mrs. O’Brien from “The Tree of Life,” her Maya is a tough-as-nails operative with an iron will and a precocious mind that can think as the terrorist might be thinking.  Not to mention, she’s got a straight-shooting mouth that lets you know exactly what’s on her mind.

While the rest of the CIA is content to play defensive, retroactive role in counterterrorism, Maya never takes her eyes off the prize and continues to push for offensive measures to take out Bin Laden.  Even when the mixed bag of successes and failures of the post-9/11 era make the intelligence community hesitant, she remains assured of herself and confident that she has found the key to locating Bin Laden.  Through the journalistic proceedings of “Zero Dark Thirty,” Boal cleverly utilizes Maya as an important through-line to keep us drawn in.  And Chastain in turns creates a character so scarily resolute that we can’t help but root and cheer for her.

Beyond just the emotional center of the film, Maya provides a very interesting opportunity for analysis on multiple viewings of “Zero Dark Thirty” as her symbolic function begins to reveal itself.  Is she representative of the CIA’s struggle in the War on Terror, or merely a countercurrent that proved to be right all along?  Is she a placeholder for the average American in the post-9/11 world, or the best of us all who never gave up hope?  One thing is for certain: Maya is someone we cast all our own emotions of the decade-long hunt onto, and through her, we can achieve a purifying catharsis not unlike the President’s late-night announcement on an evening in May 2011.  A-3halfstars

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