Kathryn Bigelow made a surprise (to some) name for herself when her small little feature “The Hurt Locker” slew the Goliath “Avatar” with 2010 Best Picture/Best Director Oscars, beating out her ex-husband James Cameron’s heavily favored sci-fi epic. With “Zero Dark Thirty” she won’t have a chance to a double repeat, as the Academy voters only gave her new film a Best Picture nomination (in a crowded field of 9 contenders), and shut her out from the Directing category. Mark Boal, who won for his screenplay three years ago, should be a heavy favorite to repeat in the Best Original Screenplay slot. In the acting category, Jessica Chastain ably replaces Jeremy Renner, who catapulted to well deserved bigger roles because of his win.
The marvelously versatile Chastain really hangs it all on the line with her fierce portrayal of Maya, a determinedly stubborn C.I.A. targeter, part of the team involved in the decade-long hunt for al-Qaeda terrorist leader Osama bin Laden. The film begins with several minutes of black screen, our ears picking through some of the harrowing 911 telephone calls as the Twin Towers are attacked and falling, ending with a dazed operator quietly realizing “Oh My God.” The actual story starts seconds (and two years) later, as Maya is sent to oversee one of the numerous torture episodes being orchestrated by fellow agent Dan (a terrific Jason Clarke, who costarred with Chastain in both “Lawless” and “Texas Killing Fields,” but here hones close to the ruthless politician he played on the Showtime series “Brotherhood”) at the first of several “black sites” which pop up throughout the film. (These are the “Rated R for Strong Violence Including Brutal Disturbing Images” scenes about which several politicos in Washington have been huffing and puffing.)
Chastain’s character, based on an amalgamation of several true life people (the “if I tell you the real name(s) I’ll have to kill you” kind), is uneasy with the water-boarding and other torture strategies, averting her gaze ever so slightly. As the years—and the film, which runs over 2½ hours—pass, her Maya grows bolder and more headstrong, her conviction escalating as her analysis of the situation, while stationed in Islamabad, clears, at least to herself. Her bosses, for the most part, don’t take her as seriously as they should, but she can stare them down just as easily as the enemy. Chastain, who had a Supporting Actress nomination last year for “The Help,” appeared in over half a dozen films in 2011, including stints as a young Mossad agent (“The Debt”), a concerned housewife whose husband suffers from puzzling visions (“Take Shelter“), and a caring mother in Terrence Malick’s beautifully enigmatic “The Tree of Life,” but her focus here in unsexy and unflinching. She’s referred to as a killer, not in the literal sense, but rather one in which she extremely savvy—a constant observer—in her research. She doesn’t ruffle easily. She’s intimidating.
In covering the “highlights” in the long search for the world’s leading terrorist, there is obviously going to be some compression, yet Bigelow does an uncanny job of covering the scope of the hunt, with the various newsworthy bombings (2004 Khobar, 2005 London, 2008 Islamabad Marriott, and 2009 Camp Chapman, etc.) recreated up close and in your face. Cinematographer Greig Fraser used a hand-held camera throughout the movie “to document and bear witness” (Bigelow’s words).
The story traipses between Pakistan, Afghanistan, Poland, and elsewhere (while actually filmed in Jordan and India), as Maya examine tons of videos, dvds, and interrogation journals. While Maya and her co-workers dig through the needle in the haystack, certain persons of interest move in and out of her sphere. Dead ends and bad (i.e., fatal) situations drag the search to incredible moments of frustration. “I want targets. Bring me people to kill!” one diplomatic/spy exhorts.
The film shines in its last hour, as one lead about a possible close link to bin Laden spans out in a segment (there are numerous descriptors titled out during the film ) labeled “tradecraft” that shows how dogged determination and a technical advantage can actually result in some good information. When the details are presented to the CIA director (James Gandolfini), not by Maya, but her superior, she is sitting out of direct closeness to him. He questions the map of the area when bin Laden may be hiding, asking about various structures, including the military “West Point” academy about a mile from the compound. Maya chimes in with the exact footage distance, which catches the director’s interest. When he asks who she is, her matter-of-fact response is a brash “I’m the mother f****r who found this place!”
Yet, even then, the odds are not high enough for the brass (including President Obama, never seen in the film) to move ahead, at least initially. Satellite surveillance is inconclusive. A vaccination ruse is ineffective. And Maya, growing ever frustrated, uses a big red marker to scribble the days of inaction on her boss’s office window. 21. 52. 100!!! and more. Ultimately, it came down to a gamble, but one Maya thought winnable.
The final assault on the Abbottabad compound by the now renowned Navy Seals in their modified Black Hawk helicopters is carried out with a military precision, without any music score and with much night vision style photography. Squadron Team Leader Patrick (Joel Edgerton, most recently in “The Odd Life of Timothy Green“) commands his troops in the dark of night as they proceed with military precision through the rooms and floors of the compound. Despite what you have read about the assault, being embedded in the action, as you really feel you are, brings closer the hope for the mission’s success, particularly after the near disaster as one of the copter’s crashes.
“Zero Dark Thirty” is truly one of the best films of 2012. In my list, it is the best.