Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty arrives in local theaters cresting a wave of awards season hype that includes year-end accolades from critics, multiple Golden Globe nods and what’s sure to be a high number of Academy Award nominations. (The Oscar announcement is still 48 hours away as I write this, but if the predictions are to be believed, Thirty is primed to compete in at least the Best Picture, Director, Actress and Screenplay categories.) The critical establishment has spoken, and Zero Dark Thirty has been deemed all that and a bag of Bin Laden.
Strip away the Tora Bora-sized mountain of hype, however, and what remains is an exceedingly well-made film that’s trying for a neutral (i.e., non-political) recounting of the search for and eventual killing of Osama Bin Laden. The problem is that in trying to remain above the political fray, Zero Dark Thirty adds little to the conversation about America’s “War on Terrorism,” or the tactics and strategies employed by the CIA and the military — including torture, assassination and illegal incursions into sovereign nations.
Jessica Chastain stars as Maya (supposedly based on a real person or persons), a CIA analyst whom we first meet as she lands at a CIA black site to assist a fellow agent (Jason Clarke) in interrogating an Al-Qaeda bad guy (Reda Kateb) who may have actionable intelligence on impending attacks. Maya starts off seemingly unsteady in the early torture scenes (which are intense and gripping), but before long she’s orchestrating the questioning like an old pro.
The film traces the rough history of the hunt for Bin Laden, beginning after 9/11 and touching upon the war in Iraq, the 2004 Khobar Towers bombing and the 2009 assassination of seven CIA officers by a double agent who gained access to a remote Afghan base by promising to give up info on Al-Qaeda’s leaders. (He blew himself up instead.) The search stretches on for years, and Maya butts heads with all manner of governmental higher-ups — from her immediate CIA boss (Kyle Chandler) to Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta (James Gandolfini) — all of whom would rather she just drop it.
But then the agents get a lucky break and track one of Bin Laden’s couriers to the now-infamous complex in Abbottabad, Pakistan, where the terrorist leader was hiding and would eventually be killed. The reenactment of the Seal Team 6 raid on Bin Laden’s hideout is bravura filmmaking, with Bigelow mixing in dramatic night vision shots to amp up the tension, and giving audiences a closeup view of the soldier's professionalism and the carnage that results from such expertise.
Zero Dark Thirty is Bigelow and writer Mark Boal’s follow-up to Oscar-winning military drama The Hurt Locker. As in that film, the pair captures the look, feel and attitude of the modern American military in a believable way. The acting is uniformly excellent, led by Chastain (who works wonders playing what is essentially a one-note character), Clarke and Chandler. The cinematography and editing are also top-notch.
As a technical achievement, Zero Dark Thirty delivers. I just wish there was a little more going on beneath the surface.