|Navy Seals prepare to storm bin Laden's compound in 'Zero Dark Thirty.' Image courtesy of Jonathan Olley|
I remember I was sitting in the library at school studying for my last finals before graduation when I heard the news. The librarian came over the loudspeaker and said Osama bin Laden was dead. I sat comfortably in my chair wishing for my Monday final to be canceled in lieu of the good news, but no. As fellow classmates were excited about the news I sat and pondered, "How? I didn't even know we were close to him."
Thanks to the Oscar-winning directing/writing duo of "The Hurt Locker", I, along with all of America, get to see what (allegedly) went down.
Following the attacks on 9/11, CIA agent Maya (Jessica Chastain) is thrust into the Middle East to get information from Ammar, who is held captive and tortured by Dan (Jason Clarke). As years pass and people die and information starts running thin, Maya finds out where bin Laden is and gets the go-ahead from Secretary of Defense Leon Panettta to raid the compound. The rest is history.
What could have doubled as an entire miniseries on TV, or even as a season on the similarly themed show "Homeland," "Zero Dark Thirty" takes years of investigation and tightly packages it into a 2hr. 37min. film. Not one frame of film is wasted here, and it breezes along with such ease. The first two hours show some the investigation, with the last half hour of the film dedicated to the raid. Commercials for the film show nothing but raid snippets, but that's not how the film is at all.
This is a masterpiece of a film, there is no getting around it. While director Kathryn Bigelow shattered the 'glass ceiling' with "The Hurt Locker," she obliterates an entire glass building with "Zero Dark Thirty." While war movies have been a staple of powerhouse male directors like John Wayne, Clint Eastwood and Steven Spielberg for eons, Bigelow belongs right next to them or above them.
Working with her "Locker" writer Mark Boal, Bigelow crafts a war movie/thriller/journalism tale with an extremely deft hand. She carefully details Maya's hunt for a man that she knows can't escape while displaying a first-person POV throughout the process. The handheld camerawork shows the gritty, cutthroat world of CIA investigations and a lot of the danger that goes into finding the most dangerous man in the world.
It's hard to imagine anyone directing this film but Bigelow. Here is a woman who takes such bold risks with her films and they always pay off. The film has gotten political backlash for being portrayed as pro-torture. Bigelow doesn't show torture as a good thing, but as a demoralizing and disgusting exercise. Because she decided to show the torture of a suspect makes this a pro-torture film? That's rubbish. If Americans really think that the government doesn't torture people then they must be blind and deaf.
Bigelow's crowning achievement in this film is the shooting of the raid sequence. Shot almost entirely through night vision lenses, we follow the Navy Seals as they run through the compound looking for bin Laden. This way makes the film seem like a first-person shooter for the audience, making us believe that we were the one to kill bin Laden. It's almost like a fantasy that we have our chance to be one-on-one with the man who has terrorized the world for decades.
In the most delicate stylistic touch she put on the film, Bigelow never gets a close up of the dead man who portrays bin Laden. We see that iconic beard but nothing more. Because this is a fictionalized account of what happened (though an opening title card indicates this is based on first person accounts) it's safer to play the shooting as a general attack on one man who has terrorized the world, making it a film of international appeal for any person who has felt attacked by a killer.
"Zero Dark Thirty" is unlike any film to come before it in style and execution.
For me, Bigelow is symbolized and immortalized in Chastain's performance. While Chastain grinds gears and works tirelessly through the ups and downs with her investigation team, I can only imagine that's how Bigelow was making this and "The Hurt Locker." There are two strong women doing the right thing in a male-dominated world. Chastain goes above and beyond, playing Maya as coy and tough as nails in the most perfect balance. Even with seven films released in 2011 alone, this performance runs circles around all of those. Give her the Oscar.
Some people I've talked to think that just a year-and-a-half after bin Laden's death the film may have been released too soon. Considering this is a film that has achieved unanimous acclaim, a time release doesn't matter. Films that have undertaken 9/11 stories have been either critically acclaimed, like "United 93," or have been met with lukewarm reaction, like "World Trade Center," and those judgments are based on how well the film was made.
A white-knuckle thriller where we all know the ending, the buildup to that ending is flawless storytelling. "Zero Dark Thirty" is the best film of 2012 if not the decade.