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Nobody walks into Zero Dark Thirty not knowing what it’s about. A prestige film about the decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden, it’s the first motion picture directed by Kathryn Bigelow since winning the Oscar for The Hurt Locker. It’s been in the news constantly before and since its release (it opens today around the country, but has been playing in New York and L.A. for weeks), and had a series of controversies about its production and subject matter that’s been fodder for talking heads – what kind of access to classified information did the filmmakers get, does the picture make torture look more effective than it actually was in finding bin Laden, etc.
With all that in mind, it’s difficult to know what is factual and what has been concocted, but as a movie Zero Dark Thirty grabs you by the throat in its opening moments – audio of helpless Twin Tower victims on 9/11 – and doesn’t let go for an instant. Bigelow uses actual footage of the attacks and it provides a jarring immediacy that reminds you of the reality behind the story, not Hollywood.
We hear so much about the military in the news of counter-terrorism efforts that the attention the film dedicates to intelligence and CIA operations behind the scenes feel fresh and different. The story is centered around operatives who have dedicated years of their lives, forgetting who they are, living like ghosts and abandoning all sense of a private life to chase a multitude of terrorist leaders.
As one of those obsessed CIA analysts, Jessica Chastain (the mom in Tree of Life) is a sure front-runner for a Best Actress Oscar, delivering a powerful and human performance as the agency operative tracking down Saudi groups which would eventually lead to Bin Laden. Initially we sense how overwhelmed she feels, witnessing “enhanced interrogation” techniques inflicted by a burnt out operative who’s been in the field too long (under-rated Jason Clarke, from TV’s “The Chicago Code” and “Brotherhood”)
But as the film progresses, Chastain’s character grows increasingly frustrated with the cat-and-mouse chase, and develops a far more hard-boiled attitude in finding the target. Her success brings the picture’s rare moments of comic relief as she experiences the angst of a lone woman very much in a boys club, having to defend her investigations to higher ups (Kyle Chandler from “Friday Night Lights”).
Chastain’s terrific performance is essential to the plot’s unfolding and its ultimate success. She brings a singular point of view that provides the audience with a means of experiencing and relating to the film. Viewers immediately resonate with her initial reservations and discomfort, but later experience her growing frustration at the lack of action taken as more intel is revealed. Like her, the audience knows more than her peers and higher-ups, but must wait for all the pieces to line up before something can be done. When the dust settles at the end, we feel everything she does - relieved, exhausted, overwhelmed and a little uncertain.
I’m sure with endless conspiracy theories and critiques of government and military tactics, this film may not be for everyone, though I don’t know how you could stay away. But this isn’t a war movie or an army movie. That comes finally at the end, but I was impressed by Bigelow’s ability to capture at the climax the different reactions Seal Team Six soldiers had during the execution of the operation.
The question is: If this movie was fictional, would we be as engaged? Maybe -- the chilling soundtrack is galvanizing, for one thing --but certainly not as emotionally invested as Americans, knowing what we’re watching is true and based on events that impacted each and every one one of us and still do to this day. Walking out of the theater I still felt apprehensive that we may never really feel safe, there are still terrorists out there, and we may never know everything we feel we should. But the film does an excellent job of saluting the exhausting endeavors of unknown and unthanked people who brought a sense of justice to the many families who lost loved ones on September 11, 2001. -- (****) Lindsay Doyle & Christine Wu