With “The Hurt Locker,” which won six Academy Awards including Best Picture in 2010, Kathryn Bigelow created a riveting, small-scale war film focusing on a first-rate bomb squad unit in Iraq. The key to the film’s effectiveness was its emphasis on less being more – rather than drumming up suspense with constant explosions and shootouts, it was the quiet before the storm and what made the soldiers tick that really seized our attention.
“Zero Dark Thirty” is no different. While it certainly is a more sprawling effort – spanning the 10-year manhunt for Osama Bin Laden and covering three continents – the film still feels extremely intimate and precisely calculated. It moves along at a brisk pace but never hesitates to take a breather, if only for a fleeting glimpse into the sensibilities and motivations of these relentless CIA agents.
The film begins with chilling audio of actual phone calls made on 9/11 playing over a pitch-black screen, which reminds the audience what the hunt for Osama was about on a deeply human level. The rest of the film plays out very much like a fervent political drama, weaving in and out of government office buildings and musty interrogation rooms. Just as you begin to get comfortable, Bigelow blind-sides you with a one-two punch to the gut, as the film inches closer to its thrilling, nail-biting finale. We all know how the story ends, but that doesn’t soften the blow of each shocking twist or revelation along the way.
More than just a war movie, “Zero Dark Thirty” is about one woman’s immense dedication to her work. The audience is never given a glimpse into the personal life of Maya (Jessica Chastain), but rather, must observe her on-the-job nuances to gather where she’s at on her journey. This makes the film’s conclusion all the more devastating, as Maya is essentially left with nothing when the manhunt draws to a close.
Chastain gives one of the best performances of 2012 as the unyielding Maya and delivers arguably the year’s greatest line in cinema (“I’m the motherf***er that found this place, sir.”). She begins as but a timid rookie thrown into the brutal environment of cross-examining terrorists, where she is unsure of how to take charge and begins questioning her morals. As the film goes on, you see ferocity simmering beneath the surface, and by the end, Chastain is a spewing volcano and undoubtedly a force to be reckoned with.
After breaking out in a whopping seven films in 2011, Chastain has easily proven that she is one of the best actresses working today. Her performance in “Zero Dark Thirty” is polished and authentic, effortlessly carrying the weight of the entire film on her petite shoulders. Although she faces fierce competition from Jennifer Lawrence in “Silver Linings Playbook,” Chastain essentially has her well-deserved Best Actress Oscar in the bag.
There has been a big fuss made in the media regarding Bigelow’s depiction of torture and whether or not she endorses the methods used. While the techniques are inhumane – waterboarding and stuffing a suspected terrorist into a wooden box with no light – Bigelow never outright supports or condones any of these practices.
During the harrowing raid of Osama’s compound, we see the terror and anguish of the innocent children as their family members are gunned down. Chastain’s character even goes as far to admit that she didn’t want to raid the compound, but would have simply preferred to bomb it. Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal are objective in the way that they lay down the facts (however skewed they may be for Hollywood’s sake) and allow the audience to make their own conclusions about what they’ve witnessed.
“Zero Dark Thirty” does not sugarcoat its events, and thankfully is not bogged down by any sort of pro-America or political agendas. It is a raw and sometimes disquieting account of history’s greatest manhunt that is deserving of yet another Best Picture win for Bigelow and company.