Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

Directed by Kathryn Bigelow
Written by Mark Boal

A little over a decade ago, America was attacked by terrorists on its own soil. September 11, 2001 is a date that will live in the history books forever, and is a date which dictated much of America’s foreign policy and use of its military and intelligence agencies. Four years ago, director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal teamed up to create the Best Picture winning film The Hurt Locker. This year they join forces once again to tell the story of the manhunt of Osama Bin Laden, the leader of al-Qaeda. The film claims it is based on first hand accounts of actual events. As this is a film, I went in with the assumption that the goal was to find and kill Bin Laden, and anything that happened in between was there for entertainment, not for information. This is not a history lesson. It is just an entertaining film.

The shell of the film is the manhunt, but Boal and Bigelow show us the few men and women that dedicated their lives to the mission of finding Bin Laden. For a decade, we see the evolution of Maya Lambert (Jessica Chastain), as she follows lead after lead to finally locate the lynchpin of al-Qaeda. Her small team, made up of a stellar supporting cast which includes Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Ehle, Jason Clarke, Mark Strong, Edgar Ramirez, and ultimately Joel Edgerton, slowly succumbs to the high pressure of their dangerous and isolated task. But lead by Maya, who goes from green field agent to hard nosed determined CIA agent, they all come together to complete their decade long mission. The film is as much a character study of these men and women as it is a political thriller.

And that is just one of the many strengths of the film. Bigelow could have easily gotten very political, very quick. Now, that does not mean that the film will be immune from those looking for a political reason to either champion or denounce the film; that cannot be avoided. Instead, I found the film focused much more on the people than the actual goal, which afforded Bigelow the ability to form interested characters with whom the audience could try to connect. I cannot speak for everyone, but I felt a certain combination of admiration, respect, and pity for these patriotic and extremely motivated individuals. And perhaps the greatest of these emotions was pity. They put themselves through hell, no friends or family except each other until their mission was accomplished, and Bigelow and Boal handle them masterfully.

I would be remiss if I did not report my fleeting boredom through the first half of the film however. It was not something that ruined the film, it merely existed while the setup, the many years of interrogations and following leads to dead ends, just looking for the one tip that would lead to more results, while Maya was getting no results. In retrospect this segment is essential to what makes the second half of the film so effective. As a thriller the film is a slow burn which builds to the exciting climax. The first act of the film serves as a structure and a base to view these characters as their lives and personalities evolve and reveal themselves as the film progresses. As I was watching it I found myself fighting disinterest, but it is certainly one of those films I am already curious to revisit, to see what else I can glean.

But the point is that everything brings us to the thrilling conclusion. Anyone who has lived at any point in the last few years knows how the film will conclude, yet Bigelow and Boal delivered a scene beyond my wildest dreams. It is a tense section of perfection. I couldn’t even venture a guess at the length of the scene, all time stood still as the film gripped me completely. The payoff to the slow burn that came before it. One of the best scenes I’ve seen this year without a doubt, making the film truly great. However, I would still rank a handful of other films above this one, great as it was. Chastain makes a strong lead and adds to her multiple great performances within just a couple years; the ensemble cast is also spectacular. Who knows what legacy this film will leave. There are those claiming it defines a decade. It does a great job of encapsulating the mentality of the country, but I myself would stop after simply calling it a great film.

***1/2 – Great


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