Facing numerous investigations for the CIA’s involvement with the film and almost insurmountable expectations because of it’s status as a follow up to a Best Picture winner, Kathryn Bigelow’s latest film, Zero Dark Thirty, seemed doomed to be a disappointment. Yet somehow Bigelow has crafted a film that is not only great, but, at the very least, one of the best films of the year.
Zero Dark Thirty states in its first scene of the film that it is based off of first hand accounts. It follows Maya (played by Jessica Chastain), a young CIA agent, who uncovers the informal name of Osama bin Laden’s courier. The film goes through an entire decade as it track’s Maya’s hunt to find the real name of the courier and ultimately Osama bin Laden. The film is directed by Kathryn Bigelow and is written by Mark Boal (which is the Academy Award winning team behind The Hurt Locker).
Kathryn Bigelow was quite simply born to direct this film. It allows her to showcase her mastery of the thriller genre while providing an interesting portrayal of a strong woman character (one who is based on a real life CIA agent). It is quite stunning and perplexing what Bigelow and Mark Boal (who actually did his own firsthand research into the hunt for bin Laden to make this film) are able to do with this film. They are able to make every set piece interesting and they never overstay their welcome. Yet every sequence is so different from the last that you actually do feel like a large span of time has passed from the beginning to the end of the film (despite not feeling that while you are sitting in your seat watching the film).
Bigelow and Boal also do a fantastic job of tackling the subject of torture. They display it in great detail so it can be hard to sit through at times (especially early on in the film). However, the film never takes a side on the usefulness of torture. Some characters in the film claim that torture is useful in their hunt and yet the key piece of information that eventually leads to the courier comes from a document given to the CIA from Morocco in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, and the film makes sure to make the torture so brutal that you actually feel sympathetic for the terrorist (said terrorist is not Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, which is one of many things Senator John McCain and company are reporting erroneously).
Bigelow and Boal also have a fantastic cast at their disposal. Front and center is Jessica Chastain as the CIA agent who leads the hunt for bin Laden. It’s a great character, and while it doesn’t provide many fireworks for Chastain, the cool nature of the character is what makes her so interesting (and it provides ample opportunities for Chastain to give subtleties to her performance). Of course when Chastain actually gets something to chew on (especially in a devastating final scene), she nails it. This film follows in the footsteps of Lincoln and Argo with a cast loaded (to unfair lengths) with talented actors. Some of the ones who really standout are Mark Strong (as a passionate CIA leader), Jennifer Ehle (as one of the more friendly CIA officers to Maya), and Kyle Chandler (as real life CIA station chief Joseph Bradley). However, the real breakout performance of the supporting cast belongs to Jason Clarke. Clarke is able to steal the first half of the film as he plays a weary but go-for-broke CIA interrogator.
Forget all of the controversy. Just watch Zero Dark Thirty and you will be in for one of the best cinematic experiences of the year.