Perhaps no other manhunt in history has been as extensive or significant as the search for Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden. His death on May 2nd, 2011; by the US Navy's elite Seal Team Six was the culmination of an individual effort that has been remarkably unknown until now. Director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal reveal the painstaking detail, effort, and danger involved by the CIA analyst who spearheaded the operation. Zero Dark Thirty is a clinical, apolitical look at ten years of dogged determination. It looks at the search at the micro level, completely ignoring the presidential level discourse and horrific imagery seared into our consciousness on 9/11. We never see George W. Bush, mere seconds of Barack Obama, no airplanes crashing, and no towers collapsing. This film shows the ground level, the frontline. It is disturbing, riveting, and exhilarating all at once.
Zero Dark Thirty opens two years after 9/11 at the US embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan. A young CIA analyst, Maya (Jessica Chastain), is added to the team searching for Bin Laden in Afghanistan. She's paired with team leader Dan (Jason Clarke). He is the primary interrogator of those suspected to be Al Qaeda members or sympathizers. Maya's initiation into the world of black operations is immediate and severe, as she witnesses a terrorist financier put through enhanced interrogation techniques. As time passes, clues come and go, the team continues with little success as Al Qaeda attacks continue in the Middle East and London. Their failure leads to several high profile incidents for the team. But while others take their eyes off Bin Laden as the first priority, Maya's resolve turns to steel. She has focused her efforts on finding an elusive courier, a trusted confidant of Bin Laden. Nine years of searching leads to the true identity of the courier, who is very much alive, and living in a secure compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. The residents of this compound, especially one in particular, convinces Maya that she has indeed found her target. Her superiors are tentative, mistakes of the past has made significant action difficult. Maya has come too far, lost too much to be denied. Her will forces her superiors to embrace her findings and to orchestrate the greatest raid in US history.
Zero Dark Thirty does not make any political statements or force the audience to draw any conclusions. The entire narrative is very straightforward. This approach makes watching the film even more absorbing. There's so much emotion regarding the horrors of 9/11 and the country's path afterwards, the film did not want to be discounted as being politically motivated. It's a razor thin line, but Mark Boal's superb script and Kathryn Bigelow's masterful direction straddles the subject matter beautifully. By looking at these events through Maya's eyes, we see the struggle from her perspective and come to admire her as a truly extraordinary individual. Jessica Chastain will win the Best Actress Oscar with her performance in this film. Maya is one of the finest female characters we've seen on screen period. She's not defined by men or sexuality, but is ostensibly the girl in a cruel male world. Maya is so intelligent, so fiercely committed, she inspires those around her. Jessica Chastain is fantastic as Maya. She carries Zero Dark Thirty more than any other lead character has in a film this year. Kathryn Bigelow picked a gem to give life to an amazing woman that continues her work in the shadows.
From a filmmaking standpoint, Bigelow continues her excellent camera work from The Hurt Locker. She's got a serious story to tell, one that could easily become too fantastical. Bigelow uses a lot of hand held cameras to get up close to the action, which is particularly effective in the torture scenes. The climactic raid on Bin Laden's compound is absolutely masterful. From the flight of the stealth black hawks to the pulse pounding ground attack, the inky black of night and the stark green illumination adds real suspense. Audiences will be amazed by the final act of this film. It strikes a perfect ending to a riveting near three hour journey.
As a New Yorker that witnessed that awful day up close, I congratulate Bigelow and Boal for their approach to this story. It's not a sensational film in any sense. The drama and emotions that arise are inherent to the situations. Zero Dark Thirty will have appeal to the learned and neophytes regarding the Bin Laden search. I'm fairly well read on this subject, and can honestly say that film completely adheres to the personalized accounts that have come to light recently. Where it really succeeds is its portrayal of Maya, her CIA coworkers, and the brave soldiers that executed the raid. No politician, pundit, or conspiracy nut is given any raw meat here. Zero Dark Thirty is a thoughtful exploration of the elaborate puzzle put together to find Bin Laden. It is one of the best films of the year and the finest performance we've seen from Jessica Chastain so far. Not to be missed.