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‘Zero Dark Thirty’ Review

Zero Dark Thirty review
Sony Pictures

I have no firsthand knowledge of how the CIA works. (You are shocked, I’m sure.) Yet among the things that has me so excited about Kathryn Bigelow’s major new achievement, ‘Zero Dark Thirty,’ is that I come away from it thinking “yeah, that feels right.” So much in this story of “how we got Bin Laden” is a mixture of bullheaded perseverance and dumb luck. We’ve heard about “the fog of war” but this film shows the fog of intelligence. This look at world’s biggest manhunt may be the best manhunt movie ever made.

More than the sharp dialogue, slickly-edited surveillance sequences or the eventual dead-of-night military operation, ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ is a vehicle for Jessica Chastain. While her character’s background is intentionally ambiguous she is something of a novice when she (and we) witness our first waterboarding. By the end, the film shows how al-Qaeda’s leader was destroyed by her intellect, hard work and ability to push her agenda through the various bureaucracies of big government. Chastain’s performance is one of brute force, and with only trace elements shown of a life beyond her task one has to chalk up our sympathies to that most unknowable factor “star power.”

The canvas of ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ is necessarily broad. A full decade passes between the 9/11 attacks (wisely represented solely by emotional audio recordings on a black screen) and the raid in Pakistan. Characters float in and out as do strategies and tactics. Rules of engagement change after the Abu Ghraib scandal, as does the primary focus of our intelligence operatives. The task shifts from finding Osama bin Laden to “preventing the next attack,” yet throughout Chastain’s character keeps her eyes on what is eventually dubbed the “jackpot.”

Never does ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ get political. (Those fears about releasing it before the election were for nothing.) Our operatives and their undisclosed locations live in a bit of a bubble, making the scenes where they do have to play politics all the more interesting. Their long leashes and anonymity can lead, of course, to the erosion of ethics and ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ pulls no punches here. The morality of methodology isn’t even a discussion. Right or wrong isn’t a factor, it is simply done, and victims on both sides are table stakes. (Essayists can ready their pens now for the potentially cathartic nature of the interrogation scenes.)

This “we are the law” mentality isn’t machismo, it’s simply professionalism. To that end ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ is a watershed for gender equality in Hollywood, in that not once is Chastain meant to be seen as a victim of sexism. Yes, she is sometimes referred to as “the girl” or her scrappy attitude may elicit some rolled eyes, but she is always treated as an equal and with respect. If this were a 1970s movie and the character was played by Dustin Hoffman they’d treat this young juggernaut of determination in the same exact way.

Interestingly the only friction comes from another woman, played by Jennifer Ehle, who is quick to throw some odd facial expressions Chastain’s way. While the two later bond, she, a tragic character, is ultimately held up as someone who perhaps doesn’t quite have her act together. One can interpret this as someone too preoccupied with identity politics, which becomes her undoing. I may be reading too much into this, but when you consider the fact that Al Qaeda wants their women handcuffed to the kitchen, it’s impossible not to dwell on the matter.

Of course ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ also represents the victory lap of the first woman director to win the Academy Award, and one is tempted to look for an authorial stamp. ‘The Hurt Locker’ was something of a master class in tension exercises, and one of the most well-paced movies ever made. ‘Zero Dark Thirty,’ while certainly loaded with suspense, doesn’t have the precise and narrow focus needed for this sort of emotional workout. It’s a needle in a haystack picture and, as such, needs to be a little all over the place.

As a procedural it reminds me more of Fred Zinnemann’s 1977 masterpiece ‘The Day of the Jackal’ more than anything else, which is no small praise. The exhaustive and oftentimes desultory nature of the hunt is in every scene. Minor spoiler, I guess, but for almost the entire movie they aren’t actually looking for Bin Laden. Chastain’s big hunch is all about nabbing a mysterious courier who she thinks may give her a line on the top target. Lucky for her finding him led to Bin Laden right away. Or, I should say, led them to what data-crunchers thought was a reasonable enough risk to take action.

Indeed, one of the bigger bombshells of this film, if it is to be believed, is how right up until the bullets fly we had no idea if we had our target or were just murdering civilians. ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ doesn’t sugarcoat this, or the fact that parents were gunned down in front of their kids and left to “bleed out.” The degree to which you find Seal Team Six to be heroes is left entirely to the viewer – there are no Michael Bay slo-mo walks under waving flags here.

From a moviemaking perspective, however, the heroes are Bigelow and Chastain. This quite lengthy picture zooms by and, despite all kinds of ops-speak, isn’t too confusing. The film threatens to dip into the latter-day Soderbergh hum, but Bigelow’s action picture chops kick in at the right moments. When folks like James Gandolfini and Mark Strong get the floor for a minute they knock it out of the park. It’s doubly exhilarating to watch this movie and know that it is making history of itself. Much is being disclosed for the first time here and, more importantly, the world is getting its first, digestible official version of this major date in world affairs. Thankfully, the craft on display is more than up to this challenge. ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ opens in limited release on December 19th and nationwide on January 11, 2013.

Jordan Hoffman is a writer, critic and lapsed filmmaker living in New York City. His work can also be seen on Film.com, Badass Digest and StarTrek.com.

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