Saturday, January 19, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty

Kathryn Bigelow crafts a striking thriller in Zero Dark Thirty (2012). It's a powerful piece of work that depicts the War on Terror in a commendably complex manner.

Maya (Jessica Chastain) is a CIA analyst assigned to Pakistan in 2003. Maya helps a field agent (Jason Clarke) crack an al-Qaeda courier and tracks Abu Hamid, a high-level operative with ties to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Her investigation stalls when another informant declares Hamid dead, and when the CIA relocates resources to homeland defense. Years later, a new lead convinces Maya that Hamid's actually alive - and that he can lead the Agency to Osama Bin Laden himself.

Zero Dark Thirty began as a project about the 2001 attempts to nab Bin Laden at Tora Bora. Real life rewrote the plot of course, refocusing things on Bin Laden's death. Assorted media and political gasbags spouted off before its release, claiming the film an endorsement of torture, pro-Obama propaganda or flag-waving jingoism. Not surprisingly, these preliminary complaints are remarkably unjust. 

Zero Dark Thirty operates on two levels. Bigelow and writer Mark Boal first present an unusually complex spy thriller. Maya finds her colleagues viewing Bin Laden through a pre-9/11 mindset: "You can't run a global network of interconnected cells from a cave." Human intelligence is flawed, electronic surveillance useless without hard leads. Political hurdles interfere: the Bush Administration downplays the hunt for Bin Laden, Barack Obama shuts down the CIA's detainee program. CIA bureaucrats are gun-shy after proclaiming Iraq a "slam dunk," delaying the operation by months. Only Maya's determination keeps things afloat.

Bigelow commendably downplays hot button issues. The film opens with a brutal torture scene, but the actual impact of "forceful interrogation" is secondary to analytical skills and luck. The detainee program, use of drones, electronic surveillance - heck, the legality of SEAL Team Six's raid - are unquestioned. The closest Bigelow comes to overt editorial comment is showing President Obama disavowing torture. The lack of an overt message may niggle liberal viewers, but it's Zero Dark Thirty's greatest strength.

Or second greatest strength, after its protagonist. Maya spends early scenes fitting into the man's world of spying, disarming colleagues with both her intelligence and coarse profanity. Virtually ignored in early scenes, she ends the film instinctively trusted by the CIA director (James Gandolfini) and Navy SEALs alike. One imagines Bigelow relating to this, a female professional gaining respect by besting her peers. Maya has only her gut feeling to confirm Bin Laden's presence in Abbotabad.

Unsurprisingly, Maya's obsession takes a mental toll. This takes an obvious form when one of her colleagues dies. More generally, she grows completely absorbed by her mission. Maya lacks a personal life, imbuing even friendly dinners with shop talk, clinging to her leads out of self-justification more than genuine conviction. Her entire life's been about hunting Bin Laden; the end of her quest leaves her drained rather than fulfilled. More than a feminist heroine, Maya symbolizes America's lingering obsession with terrorism.

If released two years earlier, Zero Dark Thirty might be a dark tale of obsession, a terrorist Zodiac. Instead Bigelow ends with SEAL Team Six's incredible mission. Truth be told, the climactic raid feels like a set-piece tacked on to an existing script. All the same, Bigelow handles it with remarkable skill, mixing handheld camera with night vision effects. It's an excellent finale, tense and exciting yet commendably muted. No rah-rah heroics at film's end, just numb relief.  

Jessica Chastain gives a flawless turn. She's not a complete blank slate, allowing humor and camaraderie to bleed through periodically. But the main impression is Chastain's bluntness, smarts and fierce dedication, whether coolly directing operations or telling off superiors. Chastain makes a commendably rounded heroine, easy to root for and emotionally sympathetic, and should nab this remarkable actress an Oscar.

Bigelow provides Chastain solid support. Jason Clarke (Public Enemies) makes a strong impression as Maya's hard-nosed partner. Jennifer Ehle (The King's Speech) gets an affecting role playing a CIA friend with a poor prognosis. Kyle Chandler, James Gandolfini, Mark Strong (Kick-Ass) and Stephen Dillane (John Adams) play skeptical agency bigwigs.

Zero Dark Thirty is remarkable. Smart, lucid and realistic, it joins Lincoln as a real-world drama for thinking adults.

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