Zero Dark Thirty is an outstanding film, a great example of how editing, sound, music and crisp performances can keep eyes and ears glued to a screen. The film’s climax, a fifteen-minute or so scene that shows the raid by Navy SEALS on Usama Bin Ladin’s compound, is one of the best action scenes I’ve seen, period. This is consummate filmmaking by director Kathryn Bigelow.
That being said, the film takes some warming up to. The first half hour or so would probably give Dick Cheney a hard-on. After a sound-only representation of 9/11 (a brilliant choice–we didn’t need to see another shot of a plane crashing into the World Trade Center) the film covers the manhunt for Bin Laden, the mastermind behind the attacks, from that day to May 1, 2011, when he is taken out. This begins with the interrogation of detainees at CIA black sites, led by an agent known only as Dan (Jason Clarke).
These detainees are treated very harshly, including being beaten, tied to the ceiling, put into small boxes, and most controversially, being water boarded. Observing the torture is Maya (Jessica Chastain), a CIA agent who realizes that since Bin Laden is not connected to the grid–he does not use phones or Internet–he must use couriers. If the CIA can find a courier, they can find Bin Laden.
The controversy surrounding the film has nothing to do with the quality of the film, but this portion is extremely difficult to sit through. When Barack Obama takes office, the detainee program ends, but Chastain has a tip–a man known as Abu Ahmed, a courier for Bin Laden. Unfortunately, no one seems to know his real name or if he is dead or alive.
Bigelow takes Mark Boal’s extremely dense but extremely coherent script and makes a spellbinding procedural. As the years roll by, Chastain does not let go, even in the face of resistance from her station chief (Kyle Chandler). She survives a bombing and being shot at. Finally Ahmed is found, and he lives in a large compound in Abbottobad, Pakistan. Chastain observes that an unidentified male lives in that compound, and never comes out. Like Sherlock Holmes did in the case of the dog that didn’t bark, Chastain uses deduction to reason that absence of information is all the evidence she needs.
This is taken to the CIA director (James Gandolfini, obviously playing Leon Panetta). With only 60 percent assurance from other government members, the attack is green-lit.
That’s the story, but the film succeeds not because of any heroics–that’s gravy. What makes Zero Dark Thirty work is the craft of the film. There are many names to congratulate, from Alexander Desplat’s music to Paul N.J. Ottosson’s sound editing. And I will not soon forget the climax, when stealth helicopters fly nearly noiselessly (and without lights) over the dark mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan. In a way, I was reminded of the helicopter attack in Apocalypse Now, but while that scene was brilliant because of its sound and fury, this one is the opposite–sleek and silent.
Then, once the SEALS have landed, Bigelow shoots it as if we were there–with night-vision lenses–as they move from door to door, efficiently killing and making their way to the target. Bigelow and her editors, Dylan Tichenor and William Goldenberg, make a great choice here. They do not cut away to others waiting back at the base, anxiously. Instead they stay with the SEAL team all the way through, and thus do not interrupt the tension by hackneyed use of closeups.
The denouement of the film, when Chastain has realized her entire career goal, is an incredibly touching end to a fiercely visceral film. Zero Dark Thirty is worthy of all its Oscar nominations, and should have had more, including Bigelow, Desplat, and cinematographer Greig Fraser. It’s another example that shows 2012 is a pretty damn good year for movies.
My grade for Zero Dark Thirty: A.