There’s something remarkable about Zero Dark Thirty, Katheryn Bigelow and Mark Boal’s follow-up to 2009’s Best Picture Oscar winner, The Hurt Locker, and it isn’t the continued reinvention of Bigelow into an incisive illustrator of what war has become in the 21st century for a populist crowd who, for the most part, certainly have no idea. That is part of it, sure, as Zero Dark Thirty is worlds away from films like Point Break or K 19: The Widowmaker, but what sticks with you about this new film is Bigelow and Boal’s obstinate refusal to give in to convention. I’m sure many of us, upon hearing that a film about the operation that led to the death of Osama Bin Laden was set to be released during the holidays, were likely expecting a film more like Act of Valor, all rah rah and bald eagles, wallowing in the success of freedom and revenge, the catharsis was all wanted after September 11. That is not what this film is. Not even remotely.
We do begin with September 11, as the film opens on a black screen and the sounds of various emergency calls fielded from those poor souls in the towers on that fateful morning. Interestingly enough, the film does not choose to show the towers fall, a sort of cheap tugging of the emotional heartstrings to which a lesser filmmaker would jump. The film proper is concerned with the 10 year manhunt that ensued, finally culminating with the storming of the Bin Laden compound carried out by Seal Team Six. Our point of reference is Maya, a young CIA agent played by Jessica Chastain who is entirely committed to getting Bin Laden no matter the cost. Chastain is joined by a huge ensemble of familiar faces, from Jason Clarke’s interrogation expert to various CIA higher-ups, played by the likes of Kyle Chandler, Mark Strong, John Barrowman (for those Doctor Who and Torchwood fans out there) and James Gandolfini. Chastain herself is the earliest example of the unconventional nature of Zero Dark Thirty. She is not the sort of actress you would expect out of a high tension spy thriller; she has a quiet, waifish and maternal look to her, and doesn’t have the screen presence of an action star or a hard boiled spy. And part of what makes this film so great is Bigelow’s refusal to hire an Angelina Jolie or other believable female action star, because this movie, despite its potential to be so, is not 24: The Movie. It is not Argo. There is no Hollywood glamour here. There is only the chase.
Maya exemplifies the chase. She is singularly focused and will not be deterred. We are not subjected to her back story or her love life. We don’t have any flashbacks of her family members dying on September 11 or any other sort of cheap motivational tactic. We know she is committed to the chase because we see her committed to the chase at all times. We don’t need anything beyond that to muddle the mixture. Luckily, Chastain makes sure she doesn’t devolve into a cipher for American vengeance, and her performance offers surprising depth and nuance, showing true growth and development from the ingénue crying in the corner of a CIA black site torture room to the woman who is comfortable and confident enough to lay her career on the line to make sure the CIA goes along with her plan. It is a remarkable performance that takes place entirely in the moments of the film, and the true arrival of Jessica Chastain as a force with which to be reckoned.
Not to be forgotten, however, is Jason Clarke, who plays a CIA operative and a gifted interrogator. The first half hour or so is truly Clarke’s film; he has a natural charisma that shines through, despite the atrocities his character commits. He alternately offers both the carrot and the stick, all for the ultimate goal of information. Clarke’s character is a tough one to crack, as his character is both easy to like and tough to love, as he cannot be divested from the things he does to other human beings. He’s a different man in the middle east than he is in Washington, and though he disappears for much of the film, the force of his performance is unforgettable.
It is difficult to talk about the film without discussing its stance on torture, specifically torture done by Americans to others, and oddly enough it doesn’t particularly have one. The torture scenes are played straight; they are intense and difficult to watch (though they do run their course and do not run through the entire film), but are not judged, either positively or negatively. We see how they affect Maya, but we do not see scenes of her pleading with her superiors to change their tactics until the call comes in from Langley to shut it down. One could argue (and many have, often distressingly without bothering to see the film) that the act of showing realistic torture scenes without actively condemning them is akin to condoning them, but I do not believe this to be Bigelow and Boal’s intention. Torture in Zero Dark Thirty is presented more as a historical fact than an essential and glorified intelligence tool. Indeed, just as much vital information (including the most vital information) is garnered from other methods, which in turn allows Bigelow and Boal’s uncompromising eye to raise doubts in the viewer about whether the torture was even worth the trouble, both morally and administratively. It’s a fascinating depiction, and should not be argued in terms of black and white morality. The film is above that.
Zero Dark Thirty bucks trends at every opportunity, depicting the characters and their actions with an almost journalistic, or documentarian’s eye. This is never clearer than the final assault on Bin Laden’s compound. It is dark, it is messy and chaotic, but not in the way you would expect. There are no grand standoffs or Rambo moments. We identify with Joel Edgerton and Chris Pratt because they get the lines and are familiar faces, but Seal Team Six, once the raid begins, morphs into one faceless and cohesive unit. The moment, the moment, passes without fanfare, barely caught by the camera at all, reduced to a silent muzzle flash. But there are quite a few shots of screaming children, crying at the feet of their dead relatives. This is uncompromising, forcing us to truly process what we’re seeing, going beyond the man who has become a simple target to see the effects of our actions on not just a global stage, but a personal and individual stage as well. It is almost galling that the film does not give us that big moment, that big catharsis. The significance of the moment is quiet and reserved, just the opposite of what we would expect.
Bigelow and Boal’s handling of that daring midnight raid is a microcosm for the entire film. Nothing is played for its emotion. Everything is simply presented to us without bias for us to draw our own conclusions. The script is impeccable, the camera unflinching. Even Alexandre Desplat’s score follows the same pattern of subtlety (and much of the film is not scored at all, leaving the audience no escape from the events unfolding on screen), preferring to simply underscore the elements without devolving into brassy bombast and victory marches. And everyone is likely to draw different conclusions, and the choice by the filmmakers to take this angle on the film has led quite possibly the most morally challenging film of the year (and quite possibly for a number of years). This film, along with Django Unchained, has brought the audacity of questioning the moral certitude of the American people and their history to the forefront of mainstream cinema. And we are all the better for it.