Zero Dark Thirty: A Thrilling Return to Form for Bigelow

January 18, 2013
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Zero-Dark-Thirty

In 2010, Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to ever win an Academy Award for Best Director for her film The Hurt Locker (2008).  The film was a tense and intense dive into the lives of a bomb disposal squad working in the volatile regions of Iraq.  Much was made of Bigelow’s award and recognition because it was indeed a significant achievement in an industry still led and dominated by men, especially in the most significant roles, such as directing.

The Hurt Locker is a war film, about men, a genre that is perhaps as defined by men more than any other.  And her film was tough, gritty, realistic.  And it is a good film.  The Academy is not known for always recognizing the best films or artists in a given year.  I felt that this was one time that they got it right.

Working again with writer Mark Boal, with whom she collaborated in The Hurt Locker, Bigelow’s first feature film since her award returns to the Middle East, the soldiers, the War on Terror, but this time its focus is less the front lines and more the back rooms, the CIA operatives hunting for Osama bin Laden.

At the onset of the work, bin Laden was still alive, still in hiding, “the most wanted man in the world.”  The events of May 2, 2010 changed things.  Osama bin Laden was found and killed by U.S. Navy Seals in a raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan.  The nine-year hunt was over.  And Boal and Bigelow had their story.  Their story had always been about the people “behind the scenes” who hunted for bin Laden.  Only now they had an ending.

Zero Dark Thirty follows a CIA operative, Maya (Jessica Chastain), as she enters the field in 2003, fresh and inexperienced, but sharp, smart, and highly capable.  Her trial by fire begins in the “advanced techniques” of interrogation that were being employed at the time in secret “Black Sites” throughout the world.  That is to say, “torture”.  She is horrified by the brutality, but she has to maintain her cool, a pretty young woman in a filthy, inhuman world of man-on-man violence.  The brutality of which eventually sickens her mentor Dan (Jason Clarke), who has to ship out, stateside away from this stuff.

Torture has been one of the many controversies that have followed this film.  Most either criticize the film as endorsing the torture as a means to an end in this battle to find bin Laden.  Others quibble more that the film is factually inaccurate in depicting that torture in any way led to the ultimate goal of finding the Saudi terrorist.  I think it’s more troubling that the outrage is directed at Bigelow, Boal, and the film than at the fact of the government-endorsed torture happened at all.  Bigelow’s aim is to depict a realistic story, not a documentary necessarily, but to omit torture from the story would be far more egregious than her acknowledgement of  it.

The film itself isn’t “about” torture.  If anything, it’s about these American women and their contributions to the finding and killing of an enemy of the state.  It’s a feminist statement.  The women who lived and died “in the back rooms” of the hunt for bin Laden, whose intelligence and perseverance in this male realm ultimately brought down the man who the U.S. sought for nearly a decade.

The story follows Maya through seven years, the change of a U.S. presidency, and an affirmation to no longer employ torture as a means of interrogation.  The work continued, following lead after lead, while al-Qaeda and other organized terrorists continued to target and attack and kill.  The tone of the administration becomes more and more frustrated and enflamed by an inability to stop these continued attacks that received direction from bin Laden and his associates.

The film is about the women.  It’s not just Maya, but Jessica (Jennifer Ehle), another veteran of the back room trenches, who is killed in a suicide bombing.  Jessica’s death further infuses Maya’s determination, but it is also a relative newbie, another woman inspired by Maya to join the CIA, who finally finds the piece of data that ties her lead to a real person, the courier who led the CIA to bin Laden’s Abbottabad fortress, inconspicuously conspicuous in Pakistan, if not all along, at least for several years.

My understanding is that Maya is not a real person but an amalgam of many women who contributed to the hunt for bin Laden and his ultimate takedown.  But this is her story, or their story, all the way.

The midnight (or “Zero Dark Thirty”) raid in which bin Laden is killed is the film’s thrilling, frightening finale.  And it’s a dramatic piece of film-making.

The film doesn’t end there.  It ends after Maya positively IDs bin Laden’s corpse and closes as she is given a moment of tearful reflection.

Zero Dark Thirty is an excellent feature, almost more of a police procedural/spy film than a war film.  It’s another great work from Bigelow and Boal, telling a riveting story, and in dramatic fashion.  It’s perhaps a bit trite though not necessarily wrong to suggest that there is perhaps some metaphor for Bigelow’s accomplishments in male-dominated Hollywood and the unsung role of women in the frays and worlds that are traditionally the realm of men.  It’s hardly a point that the film hammers on, more the unspoken truth of what the story depicts.

I don’t know how factual any particular aspect is in comparison with any other.  I will give you one fact: I can easily look at Jessica Chastain for 3 hours and like it.  She’s very good here, as she’s been in everything I’ve seen her in.

The debates will no doubt continue on the truthfulness, accuracy, politics, meaning, and slant of the movie.

I think it’s a very fine film.

For a full, extensive archive of movie reviews by Ken, please see kennelco.com/film_diary

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