When everyone heard that Osama bin Laden had been killed in 2011, the U.S. breathed a huge sigh of relief. We were finally able to find the man responsible for the deaths of thousands of innocent American citizens after a decade-long manhunt. At the same time, Kathryn Bigelow, who was just coming off the huge Academy Award success of The Hurt Locker, was shooting a film documenting the entire journey. This was met with mixed reception, as some believed it might be too political and wouldn’t do justice to such an important story. They are wrong on both accounts. This film isn’t political, nor does it gloss over or sugarcoat any of the vital details of this operation. Kathryn Bigelow has crafted a masterpiece of a film that slowly builds tension over the 157 minute run-time, erupting in a heart-pounding finale that everyone was eagerly anticipating to unfold onscreen.
The film begins with the torture of man linked to al-Qaeda. Dan, a CIA agent played by Jason Clarke, is letting the Arab man know that “if you lie, I hurt you.” The man is not so easily broken, so this leads to a few torture sequences which were definitely a bit shocking and hard to watch. I know that many people are making a big deal out of whether or not torture was really used during this ordeal and questioning the morality issues of portraying it that way, but I myself don’t look too deeply into it. No matter how “true” a story claims it is, you are never going to get a movie that is 100% truthful to the source material, because it more than likely wouldn’t make for an engaging film. This is nothing more than a dramatization of the facts that we do know about the investigation and uses only the most important and/or interesting details in order to keep the viewer’s eyes glued to the screen.
During the opening sequence we are also introduced to Maya, a CIA agent played by Jessica Chastain. She is the woman this entire film revolves around, because it is her complete commitment to finding Osama bin Laden that results in all of the progress that was made to finally find him. Jessica Chastain is simply phenomenal in this role. She is very reserved and meticulous, and you always get the sense that the only thing on her mind is to get bin Laden. Of course, this mindset has had some negative side-effects on her social life and maybe a bit of her sanity, but you sympathize with her because you know that she cannot rest until her mission is complete. Chastain definitely put in an Oscar-worthy performance here, and if she does win it is deservedly so.
The story bounces around from intel that the team gathers on bin Laden’s whereabouts and to other people who may be able to shed a little light on the situation. These scenes are often slow and methodical, as it took a long time for any evidence of note to really be uncovered. However, it is the passion of those involved and the desperation of Maya that keeps these scenes from becoming stale. They literally have almost nothing to go on for a while, so even the littlest detail is a huge deal. Some intel leads to important breakthroughs, while others are misleads that come with dire consequences. The teams really has no choice but to trust people who they normally wouldn’t, which adds a lot of suspense to the entire narrative.
Maya faces a lot of adversity throughout the film, because she is truly the only person that believes in the hunt. Throughout the films runtime she constantly has to prove people wrong and try to convince them that the effort is worth it. People are getting tired of the manhunt, they have other things to worry about and Chastain has become that boil on everyone’s butt. However, she never once falters, and even if she doesn’t always get the results she wants or expects, she is always making sure that there is no stone left unturned. Everyone else in the film basically continues just based on her own confidence and determination by the second half of the film, which is truly inspiring.
Even though Chastain is far and away the central character and the driving force for the entire film, she is still surrounded by a very strong supporting cast. Mark Strong is fantastic as George, a man involved with the intelligence of the mission. There is a repeated situation between Strong and Chastain that happens throughout the second half of the film that provides some quick but refreshing humor into the mix. As the days go on and no progress is being made on the mission, Chastain repeatedly goes to the window of Strong’s office and writes the number of days it has been in big red marker. It is very funny, especially as you witness the number getting bigger and bigger and bigger.
Jason Clarke is perhaps the most important supporting character in the film, because he is the most closely involved with Maya and her operation. He’s responsible for the torturing of the those linked to Osama bin Laden, though you can tell that such a job has left a mark on him. He wants to help Maya, but at the same time he also wants to have a normal life and wants to get away from all the madness he’s involved in. The intensity he brings to the early scenes is what really makes the movie hit the ground running. Rounding out the cast is Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Ehle, and James Gandolfini as well as Joel Edgerton and Chris Pratt who are part of the SEAL team. They don’t show up until the last act of the movie, but there is no denying the importance of their roles and the talent conveyed from them.
What Kathryn Bigelow has been able to achieve with Zero Dark Thirty is remarkable. She’s taken a decade-long manhunt and condensed it to just over 2 hours and 30 minutes of muted intensity. To be able to do that with a story that everybody already knows the ending to is incredible. As I said before, we probably will never know the exact events of what happened during the entire operation, and this film only scratches the surface of a dilemma that definitely has immense depths of information left untapped. Even so, the film completely immerses you in the experience and makes you believe in absolutely everything it is telling you. Bigelow makes you feel like you had a first-hand account of one of the biggest events in American history, and that alone is an incredible achievement.
Release Date: December 18, 2012 (Limited)
Genres: War, Action, Thriller