‘Zero Dark Thirty’ Turns CIA Procedural Into Riveting Thriller

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CHICAGO – Kathryn Bigelow opens her stunning “Zero Dark Thirty” with a date and a series of voice mail recordings. The date is, of course, September 11, 2001 and the recordings are the ghosts of the people who died that day, perfectly setting the stakes for the story to come – the hunt for and capture of Osama Bin Laden. Over the next two-and-a-half hours, the Oscar-winning director and the screenwriter she worked with on “The Hurt Locker,” Mark Boal, methodically chronicle the twists and turns of the last decade in the life of the most infamous terrorist in the world. They brilliantly weave in the elements we know (or think we do) like waterboarding, Abu Ghraib, Richard Reid, and the Marriott bombing with information that will be new to most viewers and they place one stunning actress right in the middle of it all as Jessica Chastain serves as our fascinating guide through this CIA procedural. It’s an amazing film, one of the best of the year.

In the first scene of “Zero Dark Thirty,” Maya (Chastain) has been assigned to participate in the torture and interrogation of a man who may have information related to the location of Osama Bin Laden. It’s only a few years after 9/11 and the freedom as to what CIA agents are allowed to do in order to get vital details from a captive is limitless. Dan (Jason Clarke), the agent in charge, is pushing his subject to the brink of death, waterboarding him, beating him, stripping him in front of Maya, and placing him in a box with no food. Whatever it takes to get Osama Bin Laden.

Zero Dark Thirty
Zero Dark Thirty
Photo credit: Sony Pictures

After a few years of interrogations, a name comes to the forefront that intrigues Maya, who now works in an office with Jessica (Jennifer Ehle), Joseph Bradley (Kyle Chandler), Jack (Harold Perrineau), and others. Their task is fascinatingly captured in Boal’s script in the sense that these people were forced to wage multiple wars at one time. They’d get a piece of information that may lead them to Bin Laden but they were equally concerned and engaged in trying to stop pending terrorist attacks. And the misinformation was overwhelming. Maya becomes obsessed with a name of a courier that keeps coming up in repeated and interesting ways. This courier seems to be the one solitary person who may still be in touch with Bin Laden on a regular basis. Find him and they’ll find their target.

Spanning a decade of international intrigue was the first of many daring decisions by Boal & Bigelow. There certainly could have been a film made solely about the day Bin Laden was caught. The final 45 minutes of “ZDT” captures that assault in a riveting, almost clinical way that produces more tension than any action film this year. Bigelow & Boal had a greater story in mind – the story of an entire era of terrorism, bookended by its two most important events: 9/11 & the death of Osama Bin Laden. In between, we are presented with the most rivetingly detailed examination of how bureaucracy, ego, misinformation, passion, and pure evil intertwined in this war on terror. And, perhaps most remarkably, it’s all done on the outline of a character study of a woman who gave up her life for one cause.

As perfectly captured in arguably the best performance of the year in any category, Maya is one of the most memorable film characters of 2012. What could have been a clear-cut character becomes so multi-faceted in the hands of Chastain and Bigelow. Maya starts as the girl in the corner of the interrogation room and rises to become the one person most responsible for the death of the most infamous terrorist of all time. And that makes her “growth trajectory” sound cornier than it is on screen. It’s very subtle in the way that Maya sees failure, death, and governmental red tape in her path and has to overcome it, standing by her belief that this is the way to find Bin Laden. Chastain is simply perfect, finding both vulnerability and strength in ways that other actresses would never even consider. To be fair, the entire ensemble works, including supporting turns by Chris Pratt, Joel Edgerton, Mark Strong, and Edgar Ramirez, but it’s Chastain’s film.

Zero Dark Thirty
Zero Dark Thirty
Photo credit: Sony Pictures

Many will argue that despite Chastain’s undeniably great performance that “Zero Dark Thirty” actually belongs to another woman, the detail-perfect Kathryn Bigelow, a director who could easily become the second female to win an Oscar for Best Director just a few years after becoming the first. The attention to the small things in “Zero Dark Thirty” is absolutely breathtaking in the way Bigelow wrangles dozens of characters, settings, and details into a coherent whole. Whether she’s capturing the power struggles as to whether or not the courier contact is even worth following or bringing “Hurt Locker”-level tension to scenes on the ground, Bigelow makes no false moves in presentation or tone.

“Zero Dark Thirty” is a bit long. I’m not sure that a bit of the middle act couldn’t have been trimmed slightly and I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I sometimes felt the near-three-hour length (although seeing it in a week of three near-three-hour films didn’t help the exhaustion and I look forward to seeing it again outside of the screening marathons that accompany awards season). However, most of the sense that “ZDT” is taking too long dissipates when the film ends (with one of the most powerful images of the year) and you consider what Bigelow & Chastain have accomplished. They have captured a decade of the war on terror in a way that no other filmmaker or actor have been able to do to date.

“Zero Dark Thirty” stars Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Ehle, Harold Perrineau, Mark Strong, Edgar Ramirez, Mark Duplass, James Gandolfini, Stephen Dillane, Joel Edgerton, Chris Pratt, Taylor Kinney, and Frank Grillo. It was written by Mark Boal and directed by Kathryn Bigelow. It opens in Chicago on January 4, 2013.

HollywoodChicago.com content director Brian Tallerico

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