MPAA Rating: R/ Genre: Drama-Thriller/ Stars: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Jennifer Ehle, Mark Strong, Kyle Chandler, James Gandolfini, Harold Perrineau, Mark Duplass, Fredric Lehne, John Barrowman, Jessie Collins, Édgar Ramírez, Scott Adkins, Joel Edgerton, Chris Pratt, Callan Mulvey, Taylor Kinney, Mike Colter, Frank Grillo, Christopher Stanley, Stephen Dillane, Mark Valley, John Schwab/ Runtime: 157 minutes
It is important to note that the movie I am reviewing today starts off with an on-screen scrawl which lets us as audience members know that this is a movie which was constructed based on “first-hand accounts of actual events”; a fact that is important mostly because this is what got the movie the attention of the world of politics. Indeed film helmer Katherine Bigelow’s follow-up project in the aftermath of the Oscar glory attained by her movie The Hurt Locker, is the tale of the 10+ year-long hunt for the infamous terrorist bin Laden which started in the immediate aftermath of the horrific events which occurred on 9/11. Of course, as is bound to happen with any movie which claims to recreate things that have already happened, a lot of discussion of why was this made, is it accurate, and does this film have an agenda are sure to follow. With this film however, that debate was heightened due to both the fact that those involved in the making of it supposedly had been given access to top-secret material as well as the fact that the movie’s release happened to be just before the election in 2012. Yet despite both of these things being resolved to varying degrees, this film’s critics were far from satisfied as seen when, despite opening to phenomenal reviews from the film reviewing community, the movie then started being criticized for its quite graphic showcases of torture and how the plot utilizes torture as a tool to help the film’s protagonists get crucially needed intel. Yet despite all of that I feel it should still be stated that this movie manages, at least in this reviewer’s eyes, to be a on-target, intelligent, and laser-focused movie watching experience that exchanges the typical gun battles for a more dramatic and satisfying film that deals more in obsession more than any politics of the day.
The plot is as follows: Zero Dark Thirty tells the story of a woman by the name of Maya whose career of choice is a CIA operative who, quite astoundingly, was recruited out of high school due to her unyielding devotion to hunting down and eliminating the world’s most notorious terrorist: bin Laden. At the time the film opens we see that she is engaging in her first interrogation session which she is being aided in by her colleague Dan, a man who in addition to other noteworthy gifts, is quite skilled in extracting information from an unruly subject. Yet while the guy they are trying to break proves to be more difficult than most, it isn’t long before he finally gives up a morsel of intel in the form of the name Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti who, according to intel, is an individual who is allegedly serving as a courier of sorts between other people of interest and bin Laden himself. However despite the lead never really seeming to bear a whole lot of fruit, Maya still pursues it from every possible angle with a dogged sense of determination much to the vivid frustration of Islamabad CIA Station Chief Joseph Bradley. Yet the further Maya digs, the more she begins to feel that this courier might just be the man to help her track down the one guy that she and the rest of the Western world has been searching for ever since that fateful day back in September of 2001….
Now to her credit, film helmer Kathryn Bigelow does try to both negate the horror and push away the controversy found in the torture ingredients that are so crucial to the first act of the movie with a gut-punch of a reminder of the shock and horror of what happened on 9/11 courtesy of black-screen drenched prologue consisting of audio from that infamous day which reaches an emotional peak when it gets to a woman giving her last words on Earth to a 911 operator whilst stuck in the middle of the fire in one of the towers themselves. Indeed this more than any other is the most riveting moment in the film as well as its most crucial. That is because that day of infamy is what drives forward everything in the narrative and even as the various torture techniques are used after that, it is still that phone call which looks down over everything and nestles itself in your heart and soul so at the very least you understand why the torture is happening in the hunt for bin Laden. However the debate of if that phone call and all the others of the same ilk is justification enough for the torture I do not think is the real dilemma here. I mean I hate to say it everyone, but whether you are for it or not, the fact remains that this was actually done to people who had vital information during the hunt for bin Laden and not just conjured up to give this film some extra heavy dramatic material to work with. Not only that, but to the film’s credit it also makes it crystal clear that these methods aren’t even enjoyed by our main protagonist as dogged as she may be in hunting down the world’s, at the time, most wanted individual. Indeed the film either downplaying or omitted the torture of these individuals entirely would have been liking choosing to ignore the bloody island combat as a key motivating factor for why we chose to drop the A-Bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War 2. Indeed whether you agree with it or not, it historically happened, and was seen as justifiable to save more people than those the bomb took. Most assuredly it is not something that everyone sees as either 100% right or wrong, but it is in context. Suffice it to say it is the same argument here.
Intriguingly however, it is the idea of “saving a life through the annihilation of another” which is an integral part of both the movie as well as the debate going on about it. I say that because it seems that there really is a conflict through the duration of the movie about whether the “ends justify the means” and to their credit helmer Bigelow and the movie’s screenwriter Mark Boal are willing to showcase both sides of the argument during the movie. Indeed the acts of torture do not thwart several of the key acts of terrorism that are showcased in the movie with one of the key moments being the Khobar Towers attack which is utilized by both Dan and Maya as a key form of misdirection to use to get their suspect to unknowingly give up integral information. They do this not as a justification for torture, but simply to get the suspect to tell them more. Indeed it’s a key point in the movie that is a riveting showcase for how futile torture could be and instead celebrates the potential validity in using other means to get the information necessary. Yet, and quite interestingly, the question of if these actions are justified or not is never completely answered one way or the other and plus it is difficult for us to get a perspective from our main character since although she is disturbed by what she sees, she is also quite determined in her mission. At the same time, this is also a character who states she would much rather drop a bomb where bin Laden is alleged to be hiding out than send the SEALS even though the latter would result in minimal casualties of a collateral nature. Thus the whole film really operates as a double-bladed sword in many respects that is both to the point yet also methodical in how it shows off its concepts and tells its tale. Indeed it is an intriguing contradiction that even if you support nothing that goes on in this movie, you still won’t be able to deny the impact the narrative has or the skillful way it is presented.
With that being said, the most gripping ingredient that this film possesses would have to be its gift for keeping you on the edge of your seat despite any prior knowledge about how this particular story ends. Indeed in this film it’s getting to watch as the various chess pieces are placed into position that makes the film so darn riveting. In other words: this is a movie about how everything fell into place, but it is also a wow film in the way it makes “how” so phenomenal. It should also be pointed out that it is in the little things where this film finds its footing and the film manages to play with so much genuine style that you will feel like a fly on the wall watching all of these events unfold before your very eyes. Indeed the movie makes the art of procedure quite intriguing and the spy games quite riveting. Suffice it to say that this is a film which is more dramatic in its roots and as such trades the typical Hollywood violent content and inserts instead a riveting narrative as well as some realistic military action at the end. Yet the raid on bin Laden’s compound is by no means a run and gun, but instead feels like some of the best stealth you could ever hope to pull off in Metal Gear Solid. Indeed the slow but steady nature of this sequence also does a wonderful job of ratcheting up the suspense by a scale factor of 10 even though the outcome is already known. Thus this is really phenomenal filmmaking that despite the controversy is still crystal clear ahead of a lot of other films like it.
Finally, it should also be noted that the performances from this cast are truly just as impressive as all the work done behind the scenes which was aimed towards making a film that was as realistic as possible. Indeed even though not every performance feels seamlessly integrated into the narrative, there is nevertheless and energy and realism to each role, and every character feels as if they were inhabited and driven by a lifetime of devotion to what they do best be it hunting down terrorists or executing covert military ops. Most crucial of all however is the fact that film helmer Bigelow manages to get the absolute best from the cast due in a significant amount to how serious and gritty the narrative being told really truly is. Out of everyone though, I feel that Jason Clarke gives the best performance as the member of the CIA team who has been hardened by his experiences, but who still, as the film goes on, shows that he does have a heart and also really does what he can to add to the argument that counters the idea that the film is a believer in the idea that torture is not a necessary evil, but something that ought to be conducted with disregard to any implications to the contrary. I also feel that while Jessica Chastain in arguably the lead role of Maya does do a solid job in this film, it also felt at times like she was pushed to bring out some of the bigger emotions. Yes she still does phenomenally well in crafting this woman’s dogged drive to bring down bin Laden, but there are a few times where I did truly feel like more could have been done to fully showcase the inner conflict Maya has that more often than is simply hinted at more than anything.
All in all Zero Dark Thirty is quite the phenomenal film for a vast number of reasons. Yes this film has been seen by some as being very controversial, but nevertheless the film manages to root itself with a realism that is both terrifying and realistic in all the best ways. Indeed the movie’s gift for riveting its audience while also keeping a steady tempo even with a patience-testing runtime and an awareness of some of the secondary ingredients to the narrative is truly commendable. Not only that, but the wonderful work done by Bigelow at the helm is so wonderful that it seems like she is breaking new ground with film as a medium due to her ability to ensnaring the reality of this situation and telling us about something we all know of, but few know the particulars of, and even fewer are able to comprehend the magnitude of. Indeed this is a technical masterclass and is phenomenally acted to say nothing of how it seeps out a wonderful realism that, of course, brings along with it some truly potent themes that may be controversial, but I would argue, are vital to the foundation of the narrative and are crucial to retelling this story. Thus Zero Dark Thirty is a truly masterclass of a film that, no matter where you stand on all the controversy surrounding it is most assuredly worth watching time and time again. On a scale of 1-5 I give Zero Dark Thirty a solid 4.5 out of 5.