ZERO DARK THIRTY
(director: Kathryn Bigelow; screenwriter: Mark Boal; cinematographer: Greig Fraser; editors: Dylan Tichenor/William Goldenberg; music: Alexandre Desplat; cast: Jessica Chastain (Maya), Jason Clarke (Dan), Joel Edgerton (Patrick), Jennifer Ehle (Jessica), Mark Strong (George), Kyle Chandler (Joseph Bradley), Edgar Ramirez (Larry), James Gandolfini (C.I.A. director), Chris Pratt (Justin), Joel Edgerton (Seal), Callan Mulvey (Saber), Fares Fares (Hakim), Reda Kateb (Ammar), Harold Perrineau (Jack), Tushaar Mehra (Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti), Stephen Dillane (National Security Adviser); Runtime: 156; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Kathryn Bigelow/Mark Boal/Megan Ellison; Columbia Pictures; 2012)
“A Well-produced and well-acted procedural military thriller.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Oscar winner for Best Director/Best Picture for “The Hurt Locker” woman director Kathryn Bigelow reunites with that film’s reporter-turned-screenwriter Mark Boal for this topical War on Terrorism drama. Boal was a former embedded journalist who wrote the very good Iraq war movie “In the Valley of Elah.” The duo work together again re-creating the 10-year hunt for Osama bin Laden, which started after the 9/11 attack. It’s a well-produced and well-acted procedural/thriller film that stays focused on the frustrating nuts and bolts CIA led search for the elusive Al Qaeda leader and concludes its last thirty minutes showing a team of Navy Seals waging a successful Black Hawk helicopter raid on May 2, 2011, at the fugitive’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, that terminated his life.
The title is a military term for the time of the raid, at half-past midnight. It’s filmed ambitiously as a docudrama, if you will, that takes seriously its facts are gathered from true events and demands to be recognized as a work of journalism but is, nevertheless, a fictionalized account that blends its journalism story into a thriller. It’s not greatly entertaining and has little merit as art, but it gets the little known but important news story across as effectively as the media would have if they had the government contacts to cover such an undisclosed story. It thereby should be considered as an essential film for these uncertain times because it’s informative. To its credit, it’s not a propaganda or a political film.
Since the raid was well-publicized, the back story of the hunt for the world’s most wanted man was not and receives most of the attention here. The heroine of the search is a dedicated single woman named Maya (Jessica Chastain), whose real identity is not revealed but that person’s experience was thoroughly researched and the narrative presented is factually based on her story. Maya is first seen operating in a CIA black site in Pakistan, assisting the bearded lead CIA interrogator Dan (Jason Clarke), who spends the pic’s opening 25 minutes waterboarding a money handler detainee (Reda Kateb) in some graphic torture and sex humiliation scenes.
The loner unsung heroine operates in Pakistan as one of the few women operatives in a field filled with cowboy-like male CIA operatives and politically risk-adverse bureaucratic bosses based in Washington, who don’t believe this is a place for a woman. Yet Maya shows she’s able to handle the strains of the job as well as the men, is just as easily upset as the men by tracking down so many false leads and is willing to do whatever is needed if it gets results. Maya strives only to bring the 9/11 terrorist leader to justice, and lives in an apartment in unfriendly Islamabad, Pakistan and works at the unfriendly U.S. Embassy, which makes life unpleasant and leaves her with no social life. Maya wisely, after a number of fruitless years following-up false leads, uses a solid tip from a woman admirer in her department, who provides a name buried in an old file that only needs a crucial telephone number from the suspect’s mother in Kuwait to get the investigation going. The number is obtained by an agent buying off a source with a Lamborghini. And the operation then goes full blast, as Maya dismisses the Bush claim, held by many of her colleagues, that the UBL (the military acronym for bin Laden) is hiding in a cave in the remote Taliban-protected Pakistani hills and channels her full attention on getting a team to tap the phone of the suspected courier (Tushaar Mehra) to see if they can tail him as he makes his rounds in a few big cities in Pakistan.
This is a good story, though not as exciting as a Bond spy chase. It’s a serious movie trying to seem journalistic but without the probing required of the more serious political journalists. It fully focuses in on the CIA analyst gathering clues through observation, good questioning and by following routine CIA protocol. That Maya has the gumption to stick with the facts she’s collected and not be talked out of raiding the compound by cynical colleagues or a dismissive boss (Mark Strong) or from President Obama’s cautious political advisers or from saucy CIA Director Leon Panetta (James Gandolfini), speaks well of her character and her ability to hold such a job traditionally reserved only for men. It ends on an anti-climactic note, with the raid carried out professionally by the cocky Seals (Joel Edgerton & Chris Pratt) and with its success Maya now taken more seriously by the agency than before.
It’s an apolitical film that almost neglects entirely the WH’s role in all this and doesn’t even take a stand on torture, if it’s right or not. Though I think it suggests that by being a good interrogator, there’s no need to use torture. It’s a movie that should make Americans feel good that we got the bastard at last and not by info derived from torture, but through solid police procedures recognized throughout the free world as acceptable policy.
What the pic clearly shows is that in today’s fragmented and fast-changing world it’s possible for a woman to be a top-notch action director or be a hardened CIA analyst who deals with the baddest terrorists in the world and has the ability to get results by using the conventional tools of the trade–like good questioning techniques and collecting good data.
REVIEWED ON 1/12/2013 GRADE: B