Directed by: Kathryn Bigelow.
Written by: Mark Boal.
Starring: Jessica Chastain (Maya), Jason Clarke (Dan), Mark Strong (George), Jennifer Ehle (Jessica), Kyle Chandler (Joseph Bradley), Mark Duplass (Steve), James Gandolfini (C.I.A. Director), Stephen Dillane (National Security Advisor), John Schwab (Deputy National Security Advisor), Édgar Ramírez (Larry from Ground Branch), Reda Kateb (Ammar), Harold Perrineau (Jack), Fares Fares (Hakim), Yoav Levi (Abu Faraj al-Libbi), Fredric Lehne (The Wolf), Tushaar Mehra (Abu Ahmed), Joel Edgerton (Patrick - Squadron Team Leader), Chris Pratt (Justin – DEVGRU), Taylor Kinney (Jared – DEVGRU), Callan Mulvey (Saber – DEVGRU), Siaosi Fonua (Henry – DEVGRU), Phil Somerville (Phil – DEVGRU), Nash Edgerton (Nate - DEVGRU EOD), Mike Colter (Mike – DEVGRU).
Zero Dark Thirty opens not with images of 9/11 but with only the sounds of 9/11 – desperate phone calls from people saying goodbye, begging for help that they know will never come. In many ways this brief, imageless segment is more effective a representation of 9/11 than the few movies that have dealt with the tragedy in a more direct way in the years since. Those images are already burned into our collective memories – we don’t need to see them again. These sounds bring the events of that day roaring back – and is perhaps the most effective opening sequence you could ask for.
The following two and half hours of Zero Dark Thirty is about the CIA’s efforts to track down and kill Osama Bin Laden, the mastermind responsible for that tragedy. The movie focuses its attention of Maya (Jessica Chastain), a CIA agent who will simply not let go until she has caught Bin Laden. We see her, and other CIA agents, as they use “enhanced interrogation methods” on detainees, and any delusions you have about whether or not this is torture will fly out the window fairly quickly. It is torture. And it is brutal. Eventually the interrogations lead to a name – Abu Ahmed – who the CIA is told is a courier for a man named Faraj, a key financier for Al Qaeda. Abu Ahmed is the man who is responsible for transferring messages back and forth from Faraj to Bin Laden. And may be the only person who really knows where the Al Qaeda leader is hiding. Maya doggedly pursues this lead for years – refusing to give up on it when everyone else in the CIA believes it to be a dead end. But since we know how the movie will end, we also know that Maya is right.
Zero Dark Thirty does many things – all of them well. On one hand, it is a portrait of a woman who becomes obsessed with putting the pieces of a puzzle together. We’ve seen this in a few great movies in the last few years – David Fincher’s Zodiac springs to mind. Because like Robert Graysmith in that film, who thinks he has all the pieces of the puzzle to figure out who Zodiac is but cannot quite make them fit, Maya is similarly driven and obsessed. Both are lonely characters – Graysmith’s family being literally replaced around the dinner table by boxes and boxes of paper – and Maya doesn’t even have a family to begin with. When one character (Jennifer Ehle, wonderfully sympathetic) asks her if she has is sleeping with anyone on base, Maya bluntly responds “I’m not the girl who fucks” – Maya is driven solely by her obsession. There is nothing else in her life. And it’s to Chastain’s credit that she makes Maya’s obsession seem real and turns Maya into a real character instead of the robot she could have seemed. It really is one of the very best performances of 2012.
The other great performance in Zero Dark Thirty is by Jason Clarke, who plays Dan, who heads up the “detainee” program – and is the one who is principally responsible for all the “enhanced interrogation”. Dan is a likable guy – when he’s not interrogating people, which is when he becomes downright scary. “You lie to me, and I’m gonna hurt you” he tells the detainees – and they believe him, because he’s more than willing to back up his claim. Clarke, poised to become a star thanks to great performances here and earlier this year in Lawless (not to mention several high profile upcoming releases) makes Dan into an intelligent, thoughtful, yet brutal human being.
And these two performances (and the one by Ehle) are key because they add the human element to what could have “just” been an expertly crafted procedural. And make no mistake, this is an expertly crafted film. Mark Boal’s well-researched screenplay takes you through, one step at a time, what happened, and what led to that night when Bin Laden was killed. And Kathryn Bigelow’s direction is even sharper here than it was in her Oscar winning The Hurt Locker, especially in that final night time raid, which is the most suspenseful sequence of the year, even though we know how it turns out. Boal and Bigelow have once again crafted a timely, important movie – one that leaves politics aside, for the most part, and allows the audience to make up their own mind.
Which, unfortunately, brings me to the made up “controversy” that surrounds the film. Do I think that Zero Dark Thirty endorses torture? No, I don’t. I think it shows torture, without judgment, and allows the characters who commit it to explain their actions. But showing something does not equal endorsing it. Do you really need to be told that torture is wrong? Can you honestly sit there and watch what happens to these detainees and not think that it shouldn’t be done to another human being? As for the question about the movie saying that torture was essential to capturing Bin Laden, and the claims of politicians and pundits saying it wasn’t, I have to wonder what they were watching. It is true that the first person in the film who mentions the name of the courier, which will eventually lead to Bin Laden, was subjected to “enhanced interrogation methods”. It is also true that while he is being enhancely interrogated, he doesn’t reveal the name of the courier – he only does that later, when they are being nice to him, and trying to build up trust. Besides, any movie that is about the War on Terror that doesn’t include torture would be a needless whitewash of history. Whether you like it or not, America engaged in torture for a time to try to win the War on Terror. Zero Dark Thirty faces this head-on.
I’m sorry I even had to include the above paragraph in this review of one of the best films of the year. This is a film that intelligent people will be able to go into and make up their own minds – and the whole time, they will also be entertained by a tight thriller made my filmmakers at the top of their game. Believe the buzz – Zero Dark Thirty is a masterwork.