Zero Dark Thirty: Bigelow's Brilliant Thriller

With “Zero Dark Thirty,” the very talented Kathryn Bigelow has not only matched the quality of her Oscar-winning “The Hurt Locker,” but has surpassed that 2009 feature with a terrific political thriller about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, the most dangerous and wanted man in American history.


Though Bigelow is clearly the auteur of “Zero Dark Thirty,” as she was of the earlier “Hurt Locker,” she shows how crucial it is for a director to collaborate with an equally gifted and intelligent writer, Mark Boal, the Oscar-winning author of the 2009 picture and the scribe of this new, extremely well researched feature. Bigelow and Boal make for a good team, perhaps due to the fact that Boal doesn't pen shapely narratives, but rather works as a journalist, offering his director a skeleton of a plot and minimal but compelling dialogue so that she oculd stage thrilling set-pieces that rely more heavily on images and sounds than on words.

As of today, “Zero Dark Thirty” is not only a highlight of the movie year, but also a movie event and an event movie in the best senses of these terms. As such, it assumes the status of front-runner for the Oscars in at least five or six categories: Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, Actress (Jessica Chastain), Supporting Actor (Jason Clarke), and several nominations in the technical categories, especially cinematography, visual and sound effects.

Part political thriller, part docu-drama (but not a documentary) that's largely faithful to the historical events, part celebration of the resilience of American intelligent agencies, part tribute to the skillfulness of U.S combat forces, “Zero Dark Thirty” is effective is all of these departments.

Add to it a production that is supremely mounted from a technical standpoint (again demonstrating Bigelow’s forte in these areas), and a strong, Oscar-caliber performance by Jessica Chastain in a role usually allotted to male actors and you have a timely and relevant feature that's gripping from first frame to last.

Though boasting a running time of two and a half hours (157 minutes, to be exact), there is never a dull moment in “Zero Dark Thirty,” due to the congruency of contents and form, the compatibility of subject and style. Riveting and uncompromising, the movie is occasionally too brutal and cruel to watch, due to several scenes of physical torture and unbearable pain. But even those early sequences feel candid and authentic, and thus justified from both a dramatic and historical standpoint.

“The Hurt Locker,” despite rave reviews, critics’ awards, and Oscar kudos, never really found the audience it deserved. Of the 83 Oscar-winning pictures, “The Hurt Locker” is the least commercially successful, grossing less than $15 million at the box-office. If my reading is valid, ”Zero Dark Thirty,” bound to get strong critical support, will surpass that figure in its first weekend, when it goes into wide release on January 11. To qualify for Oscar considerations, Sony/Columbia is opening the film in limited release in major cities on December 19.

Bigelow and Boal have been working on this picture for at least three or four years, and their scenario necessarily kept changing with the turn of factual events. Realizing that the outcome is known, the filmmakers have shrewdly decided to focus on the lengthy journey, the arduous process that involved numerous parties in hunting, capturing, and killing bin Laden, America's Public Enemy No. 1.

Remarkably, in spite of the known “happy” ending, “Zero Dark Thirty” doesn’t not unfold as just a procedural, but as a relentlessly suspenseful thriller, anchored by one single-minded female, determined to capture her prey at all costs.

The film’s title refers to the military jargon of darkness as well as to the time of 12:30 a.m. Living up to its title in literal, symbolic, and even metaphysical ways, “Zero Dark Thirty” begins with a totally dark screen, with the sound bites, hysterical phone calls made by the numerous people entrapped within the Twin Towers on the fatal Tuesday morning of September 11.

The story per se starts two years later, when a nephew of bin Laden is put through brutal CIA interrogations that involve beatings and waterboarding, while being captured and locked in a tiny box. The captor-torturer is well played by Jason Clarke, who shows the heavy price paid by an American whose daily routine consists of executing coercive torture. Later in the story, he requests to be moved back to Washington D.C and assume a desk job.

In the detailed, journalistic account that follows, ”Zero Dark Thirty” depicts the long and daunting hunting process, marked by the use of enormous personnel, huge, still undisclosed amounts of money, and other technical and logistic resources devoted to the task. Needless to say, it was a journey full of obstacles, defeats, and frustrations, testing the courage, stamina, and personality of the players involved.

Historically, the decade-long search is punctuated by turning points in the global war against terrorism, including the attack in Saudi Arabia, the subway bombing in London, and the breach at a CIA base in Afghanistan, which caught many officials by surprise, to say the least.

The red-haired, attractive and appealing Jessica Chastain broke out last year with no less than five or six films, including Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life”(as Brad Pitt’s obedient wife) and “The Help,” which garnered her a first Oscar nomination in the supporting category. But there was no preparation for what Chastain can do with a lead dramatic role, such as the rich and emotionally intense part she plays in “Zero Dark Thirty.”

The actress has said that she was inspired by the part played by Jodie Foster, FBI agent Clarice Starling, in Jonathan Demme’s 1991 Oscar-winning horror-thriller, “The Silence of the Lambs,” for which Foster won her second best Actress Oscar! Like Clarice, Chastain's Maya is totally committed (in both sense of the word) to her work, with no time for personal or private life, but unlike the former, no pyschological information is offered about the Maya's past by way of explaining her current behavior.

While the whole film is thoroughly researched, benefiting from cooperation from various departments in the Obama administration, Chastain’s Maya feels particularly grounded and fully detailed. As a strong-willed (actually obsessive) CIA analyst, Chastain plays a key role in the decade-long, methodical effort to track the zealous and elusive terrorist leader, who declared war on the U.S., and was finally discovered and killed in a Pakistani compound, in May 2011.

Though Chastain's Maya is front and center, the entire ensemble of actors rises to the ocassion. Jennifer Ehle, playing the film's only other female, is well cast as a member of Maya's team. Kyle Chandler, Mark Strong, James Gandolfini, and Harold Perrineau play officials, and Scott Adkins, Joel Edgerton, and Chris Pratt are members of the SEAL team that eventually invaded the compoud and killed Bin Laden.

“Zero Dark Thirty” adds an honorable panel to the growing body of films about the traumatic event of 9/11 and its aftermath, including Paul Greengrass’ “United 93,” “The Guys,” Oliver Stone’s “World Trade Center,” änd last year's “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” each of which focused on a different facet of a phenomenon that forever changed American collective consciousness.

In the hands of another director, “Zero Dark Thirty” could have become a more simplistic revenge saga, an overly emotional tribute to patriotism, an homage to gung-ho action. It’s a tribute to Bigelow’s admiration yet respect for the U.S. Intelligence agencies that “Zero Dark Thirty” navigates a tricky yet always compelling tone, defined by an unsparing strategy that alternates detached restraint with the visceral thrills and frills expected of such fare, particularly when helmed by an expert craftsman and artist like Bigelow.

Steering clear of the broader political contexts, Bigelow avoids footage of either the Bush Administration, which began the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, or the Obama regime, which inherited those Wars and had to deal with their logistics, heavy price, and criticism (both domestic and foreign).

Taking a dispassionate approach, “Zero Dark Thirty” contains no news footage, no political speeches, not even of Obama declaring triumph on the fateful day of Sunday, May 2, 2011, when the U.S. elite forces captured and killed Bin Laden, arguably the most dangerous (and legendary) criminal mastermind in American history.

Critics argued that the Obama administration was cooperating with the production as a way to boost his chances of re-election, and others speculated the administration had leaked classified documents to the filmmakers. For the record, there's only one brief moment of Obama on TV talking about the U.S. policy against torturing prisoners, which is ironic, considering what is shown earlier.

End Note

It is a known fact in Hollywood's history that after winning the Oscar, many directors go on to make weaker movies, because they get carte blanche to do any project they want. This is one of the short-run effects of winning the Oscar, explaining, for example, why Fred Zinnemann got to direct “Oklahoma!” right after sweeping the 1953 Oscars with “From Here to Eternity,”” and why Richard Attenborough fell flat on his face with the musical version of “A Chorus Line,” which followed the Oscar-winning “Gandhi.” Neither Zinnemann nor Attenborough knew much about the musical movie genre. But clearly this is not the case of Kathryn Bigelow, who has shown smart savviness in choosing her first picture after the Oscar.

Maya (Jessica Chastain)
Jason Clarke
Joel Edgerton
Jennifer Ehle
Mark Strong
Kyle Chandler
With: Edgar Ramirez, James Gandolfini, Chris Pratt, Callan Mulvey, Harold Perrineau, Stephen Dillane

Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Screenwriter: Mark Boal
Producers: Mark Boal, Kathryn Bigelow, Megan Ellison
Executive producers: Colin Wilson, Greg Shapiro, Ted Schipper
Cinematographer: Greig Fraser
Production designer: Jeremy Hindle
Costume designer: George L. Little
Editors: Dylan Tichenor, William Goldenberg
Music: Alexandre Desplat
MPAA Rating: R.
Running time: 157 minutes