A fair amount of critics are touting Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty as her masterpiece. While Bigelow has definitely directed films in her decades of filmmaking that are comparable to the overall quality of Zero Dark Thirty, it is great that between this and her Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker, she is getting the acclaim that she deserves. What does set Zero Dark Thirty apart from the rest of the Kathryn Bigelow oeuvre is that is a far more deliberate and slower paced film that her others. At about two-and-a-half hours, it includes only perhaps two or three major “action/suspense” scenes, which are all impeccably executed in her usual fashion.
Mostly, however, the film follows the mental unraveling and rise to power of CIA agent Maya (Jessica Chastain) as she follows a seemingly-circumstantial hunch, which results in her looking over Osama bin Laden’s body bag. The film certainly is successful in what it sets out to do. Through Chastain’s Maya, it is a more nuanced study of the disappointments of losing the war on terror against Al Qaeda and then fighting back, resulting in less of a fist pump of exultation, but more of a quiet recognition of accomplishment.
At the beginning of the film (which starts with audio recordings of September 11th 9–1–1 calls and ends with killing bin Laden), Maya is new to the field – she timidly observes the interrogation techniques of the outwardly badass Dan (Jason Clarke) as he ties up a suspected terrorist by his arms and laughs as he soils himself. When the prisoner attempts to gain some pity from Maya, she coldly retorts, “You can help yourself by being truthful.” Maya is fragile-looking – so pale and so thin that the wind could probably knock her over – and yet she carries with her a fierce passion to hunt down bin Laden, which intensifies throughout the film as the terrorist-caused atrocities keep piling up on her lap.
Maya eventually latches onto one lead in finding bin Laden – his main courier – and even when he is assumed dead, she doesn’t give up until she is proven correct. When various superiors try to toss her “whims” to the side in lieu of “protecting the home front,” she is a bulldog and never lets go. When brought into a meeting to discuss her finding of bin Laden’s hiding place, she introduces herself to her superiors at Langley (played by Mark Strong and James Gandolfini) as “the motherfucker who found this place.” She is 100% certain of her findings – and she gets what she wants.
While this film is technically an “ensemble piece,” Chastain is the only actor here who is present throughout the entire film. Almost an on-screen surrogate for Bigelow, her characters directs most of the goings-on in the film. Maya is based on a real-life CIA agent who screenwriter Mark Boal found in his research – she nervously eats out of vending machines as she constantly plots and calculates, almost every vein visible in the thin skin of her face and neck. Her status as “overseer” is most evident when the CIA calls in a team of Navy SEALs (who are referred to as “canaries”). As they prep to infiltrate her suspected bin Laden hiding place and “bro out” in the Middle Eastern sand, she leans back on a railing observing them through her aviator sunglasses in quiet reticence. They are tools with which to set her plan in motion.
The “canaries” and the seizing of bin Laden’s compound are, however, the focal point of a “classic Bigelow” night vision sequence during which they swoop in on helicopters and hunt their man. Lead by Joel Edgerton and Chris Pratt, the SEALs aren’t as confident as Maya and enter cautiously. This dark, green-tinted sequence is effectively suspenseful and gripping – in addition to being a perfectly crafted action sequence (if “action” is even the word to be used here), it also highlights the mixed victory in hunting Bin Laden. Yes, killing him was necessary and justified, but he was not the only person in that compound. There were also many women and children who the SEALs came across as they storm the castle, leaving the viewer (and the SEALs in the film as well) with mixed feelings. This sequence doesn’t shove any political sentiments down the throats of the audience, and remains well-balanced throughout.
At the film’s very end, obviously bin Laden is killed. But are we made to feel exaltation? No. As seen through this one woman’s emotional journey in the film, this hunt for bin Laden involved tumultuous rise and falls of hope for the American people, and while the end result is met, the war on terror is hardly over. In Zero Dark Thirty, Bigelow communicates that sentiment in a delicate, cerebral manner that really enables her to rise above her filmmaking peers.
The Upside: Bigelow shows more range than she has in previous films, showcasing both her adept abilities to craft a perfect action/suspense scene, as well more cerebral scenes of Maya painstakingly following her hunches.
The Downside: More screen time for the “Canaries” couldn’t have hurt.
On the Side: Apparently, there aren’t bald men in the CIA, as wigs are slapped on the chrome domes of both James Gandolfini and Mark Strong at Langley.