Zero Dark Thirty
Direction: Kathryn Bigelow
Actors: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke
In the follow-up to their Oscar-winning Gulf war drama, The Hurt Locker (2008), director Kathryn Bigelow and scriptwriter Mark Boal recount through intense imagery and masterful storytelling the CIA's decade-long hunt for the terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden. Crafted with uncommon authenticity, Zero Dark Thirty is crammed with extensively researched details, yet it never loses sight of the intimate human drama which propels the narrative.
The film opens on a blank screen to a collage of audio recordings of victims of the 9/11 Twin Towers attacks. It then fast towards two years to introduce us to the young protagonist. An intelligence analyst known only by her first name, Maya (Chastain, in blistering form) momentarily flinches at the sight of a suspect being tortured during interrogation. Fortuitously, she's not the type to wilt under a bit of professional pressure. As tough and headstrong as any of her male colleagues, the self-sacrificing spook spends the better part of a decade in pursuit of the elusive al Qaeda leader.
Maya has no family or even friends outside of work. She constantly waves aside suggestions of romantic entanglements. Despite coming up against false leads, dead ends and further terrorist atrocities, like the bombing of the Marriott hotel in Islamabad, she soldiers on until she locates bin Laden's safe house in Abbottabad. Later, she introduces herself to the director (James Gandolfini) of the CIA as "the motherfu**er who found this place". The film stirred up global controversy with some observers even accusing Bigelow and Boal of endorsing the practice of torture to extract information. The brutalization of suspects could offend some viewers. To their credit, however, the filmmakers never resort to jingoistic hyperbole even after the mission is accomplished. Indeed, the film's most unsettling image is of Maya's tear-streaked face in the last shot on board the cargo plane which will transport her back home. She may have succeeded in her quest but her unwavering sense of purpose has taken its toll.
An ace action helmer and one of the few women working in a male-dominated genre, Bigelow is clearly more interested in generating edge-of-the-seat thrills than in any political agenda. The climactic raid on bin Laden's fortified lair, staged with night vision cameras, is suspenseful even when we already know the outcome. Although her film is in the reckoning for the best picture category, Ms. Bigelow has been unfairly overlooked in the best director Oscar nominations.
A terrifically tense thriller, Zero Dark Thirty is one of these rare films which merit repeated viewings.