“Zero Dark Thirty” Movie Review

     Director Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty” tells the behind the scenes story of the CIA’s manhunt for Osama bin Laden over a period of 10 years in just over a taut two and a half hours.  The film is as sharp as a surgical scalpel with its depiction of what was obviously an extremely emotional journey for all involved.  If the sources writer Mark Boal used for his screenplay were accurate, then it is clear everyone seen on screen is a hero, as they successfully navigate the perilous twists looking for the infamous Al Qaeda leader.  Making an almost immediate return to the genre, Bigelow (“The Hurt Locker”) constructs the film in a way that plays with such reality and emotional resonance, you always feel like part of what’s going on. In many ways, this is a companion piece to “The Hurt Locker”.  A logical direction for Bigelow to take us after bringing us closer to the horrors of the Iraq War. There are no fancy tracking shots or visual effects, just the audience and our protagonist, Maya, played by Jessica Chastain in what may be the best female performance of 2012.

     The controversial aspects of “Zero Dark Thirty” come front and center almost immediately when a CIA Agent named Dan (Jason Clarke) tortures a suspected terrorist for information.  After seeing the film, I was quite surprised these scenes were given so much negative press since they really aren’t that bad, comparatively speaking.  I say this because I’ve seen worse on television and on the big screen that got no attention whatsoever.  Remember the many “water boarding” torture sequences Jack Bauer had to endure in the television series “24”?  How about the torture scene in this past year’s “Safe House” with Denzel Washington’s CIA agent going through the same “water boarding” torture?  I don’t recall any Congressmen raising any red flags in either of those instances, yet they came to their own immediate defense for “Zero Dark Thirty”.  Likely because it’s true these interrogation techniques were used in the questioning of terrorists and it’s also likely the CIA gained significant information that led to bin Laden’s location.  In my eyes, these techniques are civilized compared to what these people have done to us.  Terrorists groups seem to have no problem cutting off the heads of American civilians and posting the video on YouTube.  War is hell and we can’t expect to be successful in our mission when the other side gets to play by a different set of rules.  What you see in “Zero Dark Thirty” is a simple leveling of the playing field.

     Though many may have thought hunting a terrorist like Osama bin Laden would include high tech surveillance, futuristic gadgets, and agents whose actions would be similar to “Jason Bourne”, the CIA agent’s work in “Zero Dark Thirty” more resemble that of a detective in any level of law enforcement.  They spend time questioning witnesses, interrogating suspects, examining evidence, looking for patterns, analyzing maps, and following potential leads.  Each member of the team would seem to be interchangeable with someone working as a detective for a local law enforcement agency, all the way to a federal agency.  They come to work and sit in front of a computer, talk on the phone, and manage endless amounts of files and paperwork.  When things go slower than expected or the optimal result is not reached, they sit in a conference room and their boss comes in, attempting to right the ship with a “we are failing” speech.  The amount of day to day realism in this film was astonishing to me and I think this goes a long way into allowing the audience to relate to the characters.

     I’m always amazed at how effective films based on true stories can be, given the fact we already know how it will end.  We knew the ship would hit an ice berg and sink in “Titanic” and we knew Congress would vote to abolish slavery in “Lincoln”, yet we remained fully engrossed by what we were seeing.  The same holds true with “Zero Dark Thirty”.  We know the outcome, but that doesn’t mean the final thirty minutes in which S.E.A.L.Team 6 raids are any less tension filled and suspenseful.  In fact, the raid really doesn’t exhibit the sense of urgency you would think.  These guys, who are the best at what they do, seem to treat the mission just like any other as you get the feeling they have done this many times before.  In the hands of a lesser  director, the tendency would’ve been to portray these guys as overly macho and have them utter a bunch of lame military motivational phrases as they stampeded through bin Laden’s hideaway.  Instead, the S.E.A.L.s come off as true professionals, unflappable to the stressful circumstances they encounter each and every time they are given these types of missions.

     Jessica Chastain stands alone this year in the Best Actress Oscar race.  She has no viable competition, as no other leading lady shined in a role of this magnitude.  Kathryn Bigelow being snubbed in the Best Director category is a shame, since her work here is even better than her Academy Award winning work in “The Hurt Locker”.  Together, Bigelow and Chastain have created one of the strongest female characters I’ve seen in a film in quite a while.  Chastain’s Maya is every bit as tough and strong willed as her male counterparts and Boal’s screenplay gives her plenty of juicy moments to prove just how far she is willing to go to reach her goal.  Without a director nomination for Bigelow, it’s unlikely “Zero Dark Thirty” will have a shot at winning Best Picture, but in my eyes it should be a strong contender.  “Zero Dark Thirty” goes a long way in being a snap shot of the world we live in today.  It’s history, yes, but it’s recent history and applicable to all of the issues we face now and in the future. GRADE: A+