Zero Dark Thirty opens on a darkened a screen. The screams that have forever echoed since September 11th, 2001 score this inauspicious beginning. Pleas of help and pain pierce our ear drums, eliciting the same helpless emotions that arose after Osama bin Laden’s master plan dismantled national security and rattled a stoic country. The reminder is painful, but the screams of the innocent justified our decade long hunt for a cold-blooded mastermind. Unfortunately, catching bin Laden was an uphill battle. In many ways we were chasing a ghost. Our zest for vindication waned throughout the years as a perceived simple mission evolved into an arduous path beset with false leads, political hiccups, and shifting public interest. For a while, it appeared as if 9/11’s cries would never subdue. Finally, the tireless efforts of many agencies and agents paid off: America’s proverbial boogeyman met his demise in a ballsy raid of a Pakistani compound by a collection of Navy Seal operatives. Zero Dark Thirty’s intention is to encapsulate the finer details, both high and low, that defined America’s war on terror.
Within Zero Dark Thirty’s meticulous reconstruction of America’s hunt, is an intense character study that examines obsession and the sacrifices, morally and physically speaking, that raptured the international search. For those looking for a cinematic reference point, Zero Dark Thirty bears the same themes and framework as David Fincher’s excellent Zodiac, a procedural drama revolving around the Zodiac killings in San Francisco circa the 1960’s and 70’s. Much like Zodiac, Zero Dark Thirty is an extremely taut film that uncoils slowly, building to a crescendo that leaves us heaving for air. The basis for our investment in Zero Dark Thirty, outside of the obvious interest in seeing bin Laden eradicated, is the presence of Maya (Jessica Chastain), a conglomeration of the men and women who risked their lives to hinder the productivity of terrorism. Maya enters the hunt for bin Laden in 2003. Lacking the zeal of her fellow CIA agent named Dan (Jason Clarke), a cerebral agent that isn’t afraid to administer questionable interrogation tactics, Maya initially struggles to find her place in the search. Yet, with each piece of detail that slips off the tongues of detainees, Maya becomes increasingly obsessed with the investigation.
Maya’s determination to find bin Laden strengthens through the years as a handful of her contemporaries die around her. Moreover, Maya finds her life threatened . No matter how many dead ends she encounters, Maya exhausts all of her energy on an angle she knows will find bin Laden. Persistence pays off but outside of achieving some form of catharsis for a lumbering nation, what has Maya truly gained? As we sift through the evidence, we can’t help but identify Maya as collateral damage. On the outset she’s an impressive specimen as Jessica Chastain masterfully executes Maya’s transformation from novice investigator to hard-nosed interrogator. Chastain’s steely resolve powerfully permeates underneath the dearth of pain and exhaustion that lays claim to her character’s life. Chastain’s ability to provide Maya with an unshakable confidence amidst emotional collapses is nothing short of miraculous. No matter how treacherous the path becomes, Chastain makes us not only understand Maya’s will to finish the mission, but she makes her a wholly tangible hero.
Chastain’s mesmerizing performance is undeniably strengthened by Kathryn Bigelow’s direction. Her direction alone in the last half hour, which finds us saddling up with Seal Team Six, induces a massive adrenaline rush. Sure, we know the ending, but we’re quickly seduced by Bigelow’s visceral vision. From the use of first person shots soaked in night vision to the quiet ascension up a three floor compound, Bigelow grabs us by the balls and squeezes harder with each passing moment. By taking a more methodical approach to the material, and crafting unrestricted characters and diving into the gritty details, Bigelow assembles scenes of heightened tension that you’re not likely to find in any other film this year. Thrills aside, Zero Dark Thirty is still a contemplative film at heart. Through Maya’s journey, we’re forced to examine the cost of achieving vengeance. Screenwriter Mark Boal’s writing has certainly ignited a level of debate on the matter from various political sides. Some say the details are grossly misrepresented, while others say a level of genuine truth exists within Boal’s framework. I don’t know how accurate Boal’s version is to the truth, but then again does anyone? If anything, Boal and Bigelow’s efforts defiantly capture a decade of turmoil and resolve. Most importantly, they maintain a state of ambiguity with Zero Dark Thirty, leaving us decipher what we lost in the war.