Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty” is essentially a crime procedural that takes place over a decade, following the CIA (or to be more precise, a small group of CIA analysts) as they hunt down Osama Bin Laden in the aftermath of 9/11. The bulk of the film is Jessica Chastain’s movie, the actress playing Maya (not her real name), a fresh-faced “killer from Washington” who arrives in Pakistan to join the chase. She gets hooked up with a small CIA crew led by Dan (a fantastic Jason Clarke), that includes the affable Jessica (Jennifer Ehle, “Contagion”) and “Lost’s” Harold Perrineau. Together, they track down every single clue, no matter how trivial, in hopes of finding the Al Qaeda mastermind’s whereabouts. If, that is, he’s even still alive. (Spoiler: he is.)
If you’ve ever spent any amount of time watching or reading the news, a lot of the film’s “based on a true story” episodes will be instantly familiar. The Pakistani hotel attack, the London bus bombing, and the deaths of some CIA officers in Afghanistan are all heavily linked to Maya’s search for Bin Laden. If you read those incidents in the newspaper but didn’t know how they figured into the overall picture, then watching “Zero Dark Thirty” is like playing connect-the-dots. All of it leads Maya to make this bold proclamation to a colleague: “I’m going to kill Bin Laden.” Turns out, the lady is as good as her word. Of course, it’s not what happens at the end that provides the drama of “Zero Dark Thirty”, it’s what happens getting there.
Since “Zero Dark Thirty” is not a traditional narrative, it’s difficult to review it in the traditional sense. You already know how the film turns out — the CIA discovers Bin Laden’s whereabouts and sends the Navy’s now famous DEVGRU unit (more popularly known as SEAL Team Six) in to cap his ass. The film chronicles the events leading up to that, a journey that involves years of tedious research and what seems like the endless torturing of detainees by the CIA under the Bush and, to a lesser extent, the Obama Administrations. As to the raging political debate about the usefulness of the CIA tortures (or “enhance interrogations”), the film does seem to be making the case that they did, in fact, led to the discovery of Bin Laden. But this point is perhaps debatable.
The movie’s assault segment, which is sold heavily in the promotional campaigns, doesn’t show up until well into the film’s final 30 minutes, so if that’s what you’re waiting to see, you’ll be waiting for quite a while. Those expecting an action movie-style final gunbattle with the Al Qaeda mastermind will be disappointed. “Zero Dark Thirty” has no interest in “Hollywood’ing” up the raid. In terms of authenticity, the raid shown here falls faithfully in line with the book “No Easy Day”, written by one of the SEALs who participated in the actual operation. In fact, the book’s author Mark Owen (not his real name) was the second man through Bin Laden’s bedroom door on that fateful night. Here, Joel Edgerton gets the gig, playing a SEAL name Patrick. Edgerton’s little brother Nash also plays a fellow SEAL.
But that’s way at the back of “Zero Dark Thirty”. This is a drama, a crime procedural that follows Maya as she goes from wall flower CIA analyst wanting to serve her country to developing a personal vendetta against Bin Laden. You can easily tell that writer/producer Mark Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow had an idea about telling just this part of the story (Maya’s story), but had to make a quick pivot when DEVGRU actually took out Bin Laden in real-life. This, I suspect, is why the final raid feels like such a different movie than the one we’ve been watching with Chastain in the lead for the last two hours. Even without the raid sequence, “Zero Dark Thirty” is still a very captivating thriller, hopping around the globe, in and out of Afghanistan, with enough complexity that the whole thing is at times overwhelming.
“Zero Dark Thirty” is brimming with A-listers doing bit parts. James Gandolfini plays the CIA Director, while Mark Strong gets in some good scenes as Maya’s second boss, her first boss played by “Friday Night Lights’” Kyle Chandler. The two men’s interactions with Chastain’s one-woman force of nature make up some of the film’s more light-hearted moments. Martial arts star Scott Adkins also gets in some drama work in a small role during one of the film’s Afghanistan segments. I didn’t even know he was in this movie, so to see him pop up was somewhat of a surprise. One of the film’s stand-outs is Fares Fares (“Safe House”), playing a CIA interpreter who accompanies Maya during interrogations, and then later joins in the final raid. He offers up the (friendly) Muslim perspective into the hunt for Bin Laden, including its bloody aftermath.
“Zero Dark Thirty” very much feels like a continuation of what Bigelow and Boal did with their Iraq War drama “The Hurt Locker”, the film that netted the duo Oscars a few years back. Their follow-up has the same aesthetics and shares that same desire for frank storytelling that doesn’t care who looks bad as long as the story is serviced. There is such a big cast here, that it was necessary to have a central focal point — and that’s Jessica Chastain’s Maya. (As an aside, in Mark Owen’s “No Easy Day”, he refers to her as “Jen” — also not her real name.) Rumors of the filmmakers having gotten a first-hand account of the story from Maya herself is believable. The character portrayed here by Chastain fits perfectly with Owen’s description of the CIA analyst. Tough but vulnerable, with a highly focused (almost tunnel vision) when it comes to finding Bin Laden. We learn absolutely nothing about Maya’s life beyond the hunt, though at one point I thought I saw a picture of her and a young girl on a computer screen, but that could have just been my imagination.
“Zero Dark Thirty” is not what I would call a rip-roaring Saturday night flick. It’s got its fingers in some pretty deep, disturbing stuff, and like Boal and Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker”, whatever politics you bring to the table on a variety of subjects (the CIA, torture, the SEALs, the War on Terror) will be re-enforced when you leave. Chastain’s performance is definitely one of the main reasons to watch this, and she’s deserving of all the accolades she’s gotten, and will get still come Awards season. Here’s the thing: as with “The Hurt Locker”, this is a film that I can totally respect for being damn good and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to anyone, but it’s never going to be a movie that I would necessarily want to see again for “fun”.
Kathryn Bigelow (director) / Mark Boal (screenplay)
CAST: Jason Clarke … Dan
Jessica Chastain … Maya
Kyle Chandler … Joseph Bradley
Jennifer Ehle … Jessica
Harold Perrineau … Jack
Mark Strong … George
James Gandolfini … C.I.A. Director
Joel Edgerton … Patrick
Nash Edgerton … Nate
Fares Fares … Hakim