You already know how Zero Dark Thirty ends. You knew how All the President’s Men ended, too, and Apollo 13 and Titanic. Great drama doesn’t require M. Night Shyamalan-esque surprise endings, or twisty, tricky narrative structure. Sometimes the most satisfying tales start at A and work their way to Z, and such is the case with ZDT, a movie that won’t let us off the hook any more than its heroine will let her target.
Kathryn Bigelow’s film, written by Mark Boal (their last collaboration was The Hurt Locker) starts putting us through the wringer at the very start, with audio evoking the horror of 9/11. When image joins the sound, we’re in a hidden CIA Middle Eastern “black site,” where interrogations are conducted of suspected al-Queda personnel. “Interrogation” is actually a polite word for what we witness–this is torture, complete with waterboarding and other forms of physical and psychological abuse. ZDT makes no bones about the fact that whatever the moral concerns may be, its professional interrogator characters believe in torture. They believe that it works, and when political considerations deprive them of it as a tactic as the years go on, they miss the ability to practice it. By depicting the ugliness unsparingly (none of the characters take any joy from hurting their prisoners–for them it’s just a useful tool) and also its efficacy, the film refuses to make judgments, putting the true story before us and forcing us to make up our own minds. Similarly, when the raid against bin Laden’s compound is presented, the policy of shooting whoever gets in the team’s way, and matter-of-factly making sure they won’t get up again, is presented without comment.
The man interrogating the prisoner is “Dan” (Jason Clarke playing, as almost all the actors do, composites based on real CIA personnel). A young woman enters the chamber to observe Dan and learn his methods; she is Maya (Jessica Chastain). Maya is our protagonist, our guide through 2 1/2 hours of complicated intelligence analysis along the road to finding bin Laden, but we learn practically nothing about her as an individual. She lives for her job, and Chastain’s performance is like a 157-minute held breath, a steely, unrelenting concentration on one goal so single-minded that there’s no room in her head for anything else. Maya is obsessed, and ZDT doesn’t make any judgments about that, either–we understand that she may well be damaging herself and her career in her heedless determination to reach her target, and the film simply presents that as the decision she’s made. It’s an extremely unusual role for a woman at the center of a major motion picture, and despite the large, very fine cast around her, Chastain carries the film on her back, having seemingly absorbed her character’s stubborn refusal to compromise or relax. (Chastain’s performance and Jennifer Lawrence’s in The Silver Linings Playbook are the two great lead actress performances of the year, and any attempt to compare them shows the fallacy of the awards system, since they occur at opposite ends of the acting spectrum, Lawrence as lovable and funny as Chastain is dogged and immovable.)
To oversimplify a much more complex story, Maya is convinced that bin Laden is still alive, and latches on to the idea that the way he communicates with the outside world is with a trusted courier, who must have personal contact with him–thus, to find the courier is to find bin Laden. This idea is assailed both by circumstances and Maya’s colleagues and superiors, a group that includes a virtual repertory company of great character actors: Mark Strong, Jennifer Ehle, Stephen Dillane, James Gandolfini, Mark Duplass, Kyle Chandler and Edgar Ramirez among them. Eventually, of course, the Navy Seal team is summoned to action (on screen, its members include Joel Edgerton and Chris Pratt), and while Maya watches grainy video surveillance footage at base, the attack is launched.
Bigelow and Boal take innumerable risks in the way they tell this story. It’s not just their calm, clinical tone (don’t expect the tangled romance of Homeland or the irresistible wit of Argo–although when the script allows an occasional, startled laugh, it really scores) and their almost complete refusal to build in “human interest” character arcs, but their insistence that viewers pay attention to every line of dialogue and bit of agency jargon, and their daring in keeping the movie’s heroine mostly off-screen during the movie’s final act. They trust that clarity and seemingly absolute devotion to reality will keep viewers in their seats, and they’re right.
To be sure, there are brilliant set-piece thriller sequences throughout, not just the climactic raid itself, but a meeting set up by the analyst played by Ehle to interrogate an al-Queda informer, and a tightening of the noose around the courier’s location as he weaves in and out of a teeming bazaar. Bigelow is as good as anyone at pulling these kinds of scenes off, and she has the help here of taut editing by William Goldenberg and Dylan Tichenor, utterly convincing production design by Jeremy Hindle, a spare, effective score by Alexandre Desplat, and cinematography by Greig Fraser that includes everything from classically shot conference room dialogue scenes to helmet-cam footage. To her credit, Bigelow doesn’t have the movie shot in cliched shaky-cam hand-held style to provide a semblance of cinema-verite–she’s after verite itself.
Zero Dark Thirty is a superb film, one of the year’s very best (and, incidentally, richer than The Hurt Locker), and one hopes that when it opens (in NY and LA on December 19, and in wide release on January 11, the day after Oscar nominations are announced), it will find the audience it deserves. It assumes viewers will be willing to engage in a way that studio productions rarely do these days, to commit their attention fully and without any agenda. The result is well worth the effort.
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