ZERO DARK 30, 2012
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Stars: Chris Pratt, Jessica Chastain, Mark Strong, Edgar Ramirez, Mark Duplass, Jennifer Ehle, Frank Grillo and Joel Edgerton
Review by Joshua Starnes
Put in charge of his young son, Ali leaves Belgium for Antibes to live with his sister and her husband as a family. Ali's bond with Stephanie, a killer whale trainer, grows deeper after Stephanie suffers a horrible accident.
Shortly after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 the US intelligence service pinpointed former Afghanistan freedom fighter turned terrorist Osama Bin Laden as the likely mastermind. That moment quickly sent US troops into Afghanistan and initiated the War on Terror as US forces searched for Bin Laden and attempted to take apart Al Qaeda and the other organizations trying emulate his feats. Nine years later the circle was closed on that initial event as US Special Forces attacked a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, where Bin Laden was finally killed.
The events of the ten years in between make for one of the fascinating technological procedurals in history, incorporating thousands of man hours and moving from the cells of Guantanamo Bay to Egyptian black sites where prisoners were water boarded, from the halls of Washington D.C. to the killing grounds of Afghanistan and Pakistan, compromising hundreds and hundreds of false leads and tens of thousands of pages of evidence.
Turning all of that into a coherent narrative is a colossal task and the fact that the writer director team of Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal ('The Hurt Locker') is just part of the colossal achievement of 'Zero Dark Thirty.'
It begins with what is likely its most controversial sequence as young field agent Maya (Jessica Chastain) arrives at one of the CIA's many interrogation sites to learn the fine art of getting information from prisoners from old hand Dan (Jason Clark) as she begins what will become her single minded quest to find Bin Laden, or as the CIA dubs him, UBL [they're fond of acronyms, those fellows from the CIA].
From the get go Bigelow stakes out her ground on what that quest will be like and refuses to budge from it, as Maya observes water boarding and other forms of torture first hand and, except for her initial nausea, offers no comment on it as she learns the art of interrogation first hand. The filmmakers themselves offer little comment on it either, except through the CIA characters themselves who view intruding on the program as hampering the war effort. As such no counter argument is made for the techniques usefulness, though it is worthwhile to point out that the same people doing the torturing are more than capable and willing to use money, phone taps and any other means to find the information they want. That's probably a little more forgiving than the reality was, and a lot less balanced than those against torture would like as none of the blind alley's brought about by the program are dealt with.
But, as a purely storytelling move it also works, as it refuses to turn 'Zero Dark Thirty' into the kind of politics film which have ruined some of its brethren like 'Green Zone.' The CIA characters see the world the way their experience shows it to them and as 'Zero Dark Thirty' is entirely from their point of view that experience wins out.
Although ‘characters' is being a bit kind. The closest we get to that is Maya herself, though she remains an enigma from beginning to end with little information on why she is so intent on getting UBL or what she thinks about the comings and goings around her except for a few moments here and there. It is to Chastain's great credit that she is able to bring as much as she has to Maya considering how little she has to work with, beyond her somewhat traditional student arc as she morphs from squeamish neophyte to hard bitten loaner trying to convince the US intelligence establishment UBL is hiding in a compound in an upscale Pakistan suburb.
But that also works. Because 'Zero Dark Thirty' isn't about the people in it, is about the hunt, following information across the years as Maya works to put the dots together and get others to believe her about them. In between people come and go, just long enough to show their importance to the moment at hand and disappearing just as quickly. Call it the anti-'Hurt Locker,' all plot and little personality.
None of that is what matters, though. What matters is the raid itself, played out in nearly real time and constituting the last 30 minutes of the film. It is likely the best sequence Bigelow has ever put together and such an astounding tour de force it immediately washes away any potential slowness which may have crept into earlier moments.
Ultimately each will have to decide on their own what the politics behind the film are and how they feel about it. If you can look past that and at the film not even as an historical recreation but as just an incredibly competent techno thriller, you will get all you need from 'Zero Dark Thirty' and more. As much grief as Hollywood gets, there are things it does better than anyone, and when it works it works better than anything. 'Zero Dark Thirty' is one of those things.