‘Zero Dark Thirty’
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Joel Edgerton, Jennifer Ehle, Kyle Chandler
Rated: R, for strong violence including brutal disturbing images, and for language
Runtime: 2 hours, 37 minutes
Bottom line: The year’s best film.
One of the year’s most controversial films is, in my opinion, also its best.
I suppose any movie about the hunt for and killing of Osama bin Laden is going to be provocative, but “Zero Dark Thirty” has proven especially so.
Writer/director Kathryn Bigelow and co-writer Mark Boal researched this film by interviewing CIA operatives, members of Seal Team Six — the unit that ultimately killed bin Laden — and others with knowledge of classified information.
The CIA and President Barack Obama have faced accusations that they gave the filmmakers improper access to that information from Republican lawmakers, watchdog groups and others. The contacts between the filmmakers and the CIA are even being reviewed by the Senate Intelligence Committee.
The film has also been criticized for depicting waterboarding and other types of torture as being used to gather intelligence that lead to bin Laden. These scenes come early in the film and are very difficult to watch.
However, it is to Bigelow’s credit that she has been accused both of taking a pro-torture stance and of criticizing the CIA for using torture.
But here’s the thing: From a cinematic point of view, none of this controversy matters.
Just as she did in “The Hurt Locker,” Bigelow makes her goal to tell her story with an even hand and a recognition of the complexity of her material. All the research lends the film unusually high credibility.
Debate the political implications of the details all you want, but this is a riveting story about one CIA operative’s decadelong obsessive devotion to finding Osama bin Laden.
That operative is a relatively young woman named Maya (Jessica Chastain), based on a real CIA agent. While the entire U.S. intelligence apparatus fumbles ineffectively, Maya focuses on one simple idea: Get to bin Laden through the only people with whom he still has contact, the couriers.
Maya stays this course despite years of failure, pressure from her superiors, militant ambushes, the loss of close friends and the psychological exhaustion produced by all of this.
Chastain gives another great performance, boosted by a number of equally great supporting performances by Jennifer Ehle, Kyle Chandler, Édgar Ramírez, Jason Clarke, Mark Duplass, James Gandolfini, Joel Edgerton, Chris Pratt and Fares Fares.
Despite all the controversy, those who are sensitive about representations of the military should appreciate that “Zero Dark Thirty” doesn’t give the hunt for bin Laden the typical Hollywood treatment. The film makes it clear that this was a hard-fought war against a ruthless enemy.
During the many years the U.S. intelligence establishment was searching for the world’s most wanted terrorist, all most of us knew was that they were failing. We were lead to believe bin Laden had squirreled away in some remote mountain cave. That made it easy to see him and his al-Qaida as less of a threat.
“Zero Dark Thirty” reminds us that bin Laden knew spycraft and was still actively engaged in terrorist activities. He was no hobbled hermit in a cave. The terrorist attacks in Bali in 2002, in London in 2007 and other attacks are presented as direct retaliation for America’s attempts to destroy al-Qaida and catch bin Laden.
“Zero Dark Thirty” deserves praise first and foremost for being a great movie viewing experience. That shouldn’t be lost in all the debates over its politics. This is no propagandistic hack job; this is an expertly made, captivating movie.
Bigelow has solidified her status as one of the best working filmmakers in Hollywood. Two or three more films of this quality and people will begin calling her one of the greatest female filmmakers of all time. Four or five more films of this quality and people will forget their gender biases and call her, simply, one of the greats.
I think that is exactly what lies in the future for Bigelow.
Jeff Marker is head of the Communication, Media & Journalism Department at the University of North Georgia. His reviews appear weekly in Get Out and on gainesvilletimes.com/getout.