“I’m not your friend. I’m not gonna help you. I’m going to break you. Any questions?”
The ten-year manhunt for the world’s most wanted terrorist leader is a story we all followed and one whose ending will likely go down in history as one of the twenty-first century’s most triumphant moments, both for America and for many others across the globe. With Zero Dark Thirty, director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriting partner Mark Boal have taken those ten years and condensed them into 157 very deliberate, riveting, and powerful minutes. Much like the manhunt itself, Zero Dark Thirty is a powerhouse, a thrilling and winding tale that requires patience but arrives with an ending worth waiting for.
September 11, 2001 was a Tuesday. Zero Dark Thirty begins with a bone-chilling opening sequence that brings us back to that dark day. Bigelow shows us nothing but black, and layers tens or perhaps hundreds of audio recordings of phone calls from hijacked-airplane passengers and those trapped in burning towers to their respective loved ones and to emergency operators. It is a stark, stripped sequence that is ultimately extremely affecting.
But so, too, is the next extended sequence, one that takes place in 2003 and shows a terrorist at an unnamed detention facility relentlessly tortured by a member of the CIA, Dan (Jason Clarke), and his colleagues. Wanted is information that will hopefully lead to the capture of Osama bin Laden, but given is nothing. And so the torture continues.
Many have condemned Bigelow and Boal for these extended torture sequences, with some critics and viewers claiming that it glorifies torture and intelligence officials stating that it incorrectly implies that these “enhanced interrogation techniques,”, such as water-boarding and sleep deprivation, garnered key information that led to bin Laden’s capture.
I will briefly take an aside and add my two cents with this: 1) I don’t agree that the film takes the stance that torture is “good” or permissible, and 2) I don’t agree that the film implies that the torture of CIA detainees directly led to the capture of Osama bin Laden. But I digress.
The rest of the film follows newcomer CIA agent Maya (Jessica Chastain) and her colleagues as they sift through years of intelligence data, with more coming in than they can handle and most of it a paper trail leading to dead ends. That is, until Maya follows a lead that, with her undying confidence and ruthless conviction, garners a name to follow and eventually a location to scope out: the Abbottabad, Pakistan compound that housed Osama bin Laden and his all-important courier.
Zero Dark Thirty closes with a thrilling raid that will surely keep you on the edge of your seat, or bobbing your knee up and down, or biting your nails, or whatever your nervous tick may be. Bigelow creates tension that is palpable, even though we already know the outcome.
Much like David Fincher’s 2007 crime-thriller Zodiac, Zero Dark Thirty is a cold, calculated procedural of whose beginning and ending we are fully aware but whose events in-between we might not be. Zero Dark Thirty sheds light on these in-between events via first-hand accounts of the manhunt for bin Laden, dramatized to ensure full effect on-screen. Though obviously condensed, the film is certainly compelling, and unfolds swiftly and with ease.
The success of Zero Dark Thirty as a motion picture rests on the shoulders of two very capable women: Academy Award winning director Kathryn Bigelow and Academy Award nominated star Jessica Chastain.
Bigelow’s execution here is nothing short of masterful. The film is 157 minutes long but plays like a 100-minute thriller due to Bigelow’s ability to pack as much punch in each moment as humanly possible. And yet, with all this information to present, she never forgets that there is a very real human element behind all that intelligence.
Enter Chastain as Maya, a tough-as-nails woman who takes on the ball-breaking task of finding bin Laden with fierce tenacity and exciting verve. Chastain, in a word, is exceptional. She plays the role close to the chest, wearing Maya’s emotions on her sleeve and crafting a performance that never feels forced. It simply feels real, as though Chastain is her true-life CIA counterpart. And there is no better acting than acting that feels real.
Zero Dark Thirty is perhaps 2012’s most vital film, not because of the politics people try to pull from it but because of the story it tells, or rather, the story Bigelow and Boal allow to tell itself. This is a satisfying procedural at its finest, a gripping, compelling, dramatic thriller that begs to be seen and discussed. It’s a story our nation remembers, and one we will never forget.