Kathryn Bigelow created a film that was timely, moving, unsettling and in the end, especially memorable. She would have been hard-pressed to duplicate or improve on that formula, but her follow-up film tackled an even bigger topic, the decade-long hunt for terrorist Osama bin Laden, and tackled it well. Gaining the early buzz for a handful of Oscars is 2012's Zero Dark Thirty.
In the months following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the CIA takes a new mission on; tracking down and capturing Osama bin Laden, the al-Qaeda terrorist behind the attacks. Among the agents and operatives in the process is Maya (Jessica Chastain), a young agent who while highly intelligent is rightfully a little stunned and taken aback by the hunting process. Days to weeks, weeks to months and months to years, Maya and countless other agents work toward capturing bin Laden, but it is a tedious, monotonous process that entails pursuing countless leads and rumors. The terrorist seems to have receded back into the Earth, disappeared like he never existed. Maya continues the hunt, following a lead involving a possible courier, Abu Ahmed, who may have a link to bin Laden. Will the never-ending hunt amount to anything? Will Maya be pushed beyond the brink as the hunt becomes an obsession to her?
Tackling a movie detailing the decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden is a mammoth, gargantuan task that had to be at least a tad bit intimidating for Bigelow in the director's chair. Somehow, she didn't even manage an Oscar nomination for her work. I didn't love the movie -- I don't think you're supposed to love it -- but Bigelow deserves credit where it's due. 'Zero' is far from conventional, and that's most definitely a huge positive. In a story that spans 10 full years, a ridiculous amount of information, names, places and people are thrown at the viewers. The development is linear, but it's almost episodic in execution. We see the developing hunt through ups and downs, theories, doubts and conspiracy theories, clues that result in nothing, others that lead to a dead end, and that one perfect little tidbit that will produce an actual lead.
Along with Bigelow's directing, the best thing going for 'Zero' is Jessica Chastain as Maya, a role that's earned her a Best Actress nomination (one I think she'll win). We're introduced to her as she arrives at a CIA Black Site as a veteran agent/interrogator, Dan (scene-stealing Jason Clarke), as he starts the long process of breaking down a detainee. Trained and intelligent, she's nonetheless surprised at first at what she sees. As her investigation continues though, we see Maya develop as a character, a driven, frustrated, even obsessed agent who will stop at nothing to catch bin Laden, even when everything and everyone around her doubts the effort. Chastain creates a great lead character, one that comes into her own as the hunt continues and the years pass. When she finally finds a clue, she's the only one who believes it will lead anywhere. Another impressive performance from an actress who keeps climbing onward and upward.
Chastain is the constant in the movie as the story moves from year to year and location to location. Bigelow's storytelling technique is almost documentary-like in its execution. We're taken from CIA Black Sites to CIA headquarters in Langley, isolated locales to crowded markets in countless Middle Eastern cities. The story highlights further terrorist attacks following 9/11, and it all leads to an ending that we all know, but is sickeningly interesting to watch develop. Through all the clues, leads and informants, Bigelow's best decision is a complete lack of opinion. It's a perfect choice. She presents the hunt, the name and the background, and that's it, reflecting that documentary-like storytelling. 'Zero' doesn't vilify bin Laden (it doesn't need to) or try to create a bigger picture of what's going on in the world. This is the hunt. This is what we need to see, and that's all Bigelow's film is trying to do.
The documentary/episodic story allows for some solid supporting parts around Maya's ever-continuing hunt and obsession. I especially liked Clarke as Dan, the underplayed CIA agent who shows in such subtle fasion how to interrogate/torture someone, always keeping them guessing and unsettled in a horrific way. Kyle Chandler plays the U.S. station chief in Pakistan, needing to complete objectives but the odds are against him with Jennifer Ehle and Harold Perrineau as two fellow in-country agents. Along with Clarke as a field agent, Edgar Ramirez is excellent as Larry, a CIA operative working to pursue a lead Maya has found while Mark Strong is also a scene-stealer as George, a CIA supervisor who has to work down the middle, working with his agents while also appeasing his own superiors. Also look for James Gandolfini as the CIA director and Stephen Dillane as the National Security Advisor.
If there is an issue with 'Zero,' I would say that at 157 minutes it feels long at times, especially early as the groundwork is set up for the second half of the story. Not dull, not boring, but a little sluggish maybe. Things pick up in a quick way when Maya's investigations lead to a heavily fortified compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. The whole hunt is transfixing to watch, but upon the arrival of Seal Team 6 into the story (headlined by Joel Edgerton and Chris Pratt) goes up a notch or two. We don't see their training, just the night of the raid on the fortified compound that supposedly hides bin Laden inside. It is an incredible extended sequence as the SEALs fly into Pakistan, land near the compound (with one major issue) and then efficiently move into the compound. Intense doesn't begin to describe this true-to-life sequence. The nighttime raid is filmed with both night vision and shadowy, foggy darkness. You know where the scene is going, and it's still almost unbearable to watch.
'Zero' has its fair share of moments like that. It is a movie to watch and appreciate more than one you love and watch once or twice a year. It has taken some flak for any number of things -- a pro-torture stance, possible help from the Obama administration on some details -- but none of the issues are enough to detour an otherwise excellent movie. We get an excellent look into the intelligence underworld that feels authentic from beginning to end. Definitely worth checking out as award season goes into full swing.
Zero Dark Thirty (2012): ***/****