Sunday, December 30, 2012


Director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal are dynamite collaborators. Proving themselves with "The Hurt Locker," now they've taken on the daunting challenge of re-creating the decade-long hunt and elimination of Osama bin Laden. It's movie journalism in every sense of the phrase, a ripped-from-the-headlines thriller that wears controversy on its sleeve. It gives no moral compass; that's up for us to decide. The challenge with the film, even in its sweeping accomplishment of craft, is that it has to straddle the line of two territories: fact-based procedural and enthralling cinema. Entertainment is not how I would describe "Zero Dark Thirty."

It's brazen, challenging and nerve-wrenching. It's a dangerous film in its impact and obligation with the weight of history on its shoulders. Cinematic moments like this only come once in a while. "United 93" is another example. There's no doubt Bigelow and Boal deserve accolades for bringing a pivotal moment in the War on Terror to screen with such potency, but you also can't help but shake the feeling of it being still too soon. But it's the excitement of now, how current and how daring -- but also, how frightening. Imagine this film a few more years down the line; however, imagine the lessened shock of impact.

At an undisclosed CIA "black site," an enforcer named Dan (Jason Clarke) tells his interrogation subject, Ammar (Reda Kateb), "If you lie to me, I hurt you." Dan then waterboards his subject with a stoic-looking Maya (Jessica Chastain) standing watch nearby. She cringes at the torture but doesn't stop because she knows it's necessary. Necessary? That's the disturbing power of the film with its display of America's post-9/11 "enhanced interrogation tactics." Without saying it point blank, it still says it: the tactics worked. Cut to a TV where Obama in an interview says America doesn't tolerate torture. Yet they get a critical name out of it, the name of bin Laden's personal courier, Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti.

From this information, Maya gets her lead. She's steadfast in her hunt even in a work environment full of hostility and doubt against her. Chastain astounds in the role as a woman doing her job brilliantly and against all odds. She's strung-out, exhausted, aggravated and beaten-down. Yet even as her friends and co-workers are dying around her, she never gives in. Even when her boss (Kyle Chandler) tells her to stop chasing after an elusive ghost and to start going after tangible targets that will get him more immediate results for his superiors, she stands her ground. For her, finding bin Laden is a personal conquest. "I believe I was spared so I can finish the job," she says. The film is an intense character study on the real-life Maya, and it's what elevates the proceedings beyond its dense fact-based procedural.

The film is nearly three hours in length and, much like "The Hurt Locker," has a consistent building of anticipation-driven tension strung throughout its sequences. One particular moment is when Maya has located who she believes is bin Laden's courier and sends a team of agents (led by Edgar Ramirez) into the packed streets of Peshawar, Pakistan to track down his cell phone signal. The scene is a pulse-pounding exercise in suspense and really shows Bigelow's capabilities if she were to be handed mainstream action. But she and Boal are after something much grander with this picture. Their previous outing, however, was a better movie because in its fictionalization of the war in Iraq, they had something to say. Here, the action is too literal; because it's an exact re-telling, they must stick close to facts.

The big revelation of course arrives when Maya discovers that iconic three-tiered concrete complex in which she believes bin Laden resides. Next comes the harrowing convincing in D.C. that they can actually find their high priority target there. "I'm the motherfucker that found this place, sir," Chastain's Maya tells an excellent James Gandolfini. Maya is always "the girl" in the room, but everybody else in the room begins to realize she's the one calling the shots and knows exactly what she's doing with every action, every reaction.

Once the decision comes to send a team of Navy SEALs (led by Joel Edgerton and Chris Pratt) to the complex to finally kill bin Laden, the film comes to an anti-climax. Again, the action becomes wholly too literal. The infiltration is a step-by-step re-enactment, a strictly business demeanor of eliminating bin Laden through the haze of green-tinted night-vision goggles. I was expecting something more figurative, metaphorical -- a finish that would have something larger to say about the decade-long hunt. We do, however, get a close-up of Maya's reaction to the successful mission, the relief and final satisfaction on her face. What we don't read from her is the question of whether it was all worth it, what it all means for the future of the War on Terror. But maybe we simply don't know that yet. Today's America hasn't come far enough to know the answer to that question.

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