Zero Dark Thirty (2012) / War-Drama

MPAA rated: R for strong violence, brutal disturbing images, and language
Length: 157 min.

Cast: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Mark Strong, James Gandolfini, Jennifer Ehle, Harold Perrineau, Chris Pratt, Joel Edgerton, Reda Kateb, Mark Duplass
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Screenplay: Mark Boal
Review published January 6, 2013

Zero Dark ThirtyZero Dark Thirty, or 'oh dark thirty', the military's way of saying 'sometime in the middle of the night', (here, it alludes to the local time of the attack on the compound in Pakistan reenacted at the climax of the film), brings back the Oscar-winning team of director Kathryn Bigelow (K-19, Point Break) and screenwriter Mark Boal (In the Valley of Elah) , who scored accolades galore, including Best Picture, for their previous collaboration, The Hurt Locker.  Here, they take on dramatizing the search, discovery, and subsequent assassination of Osama bin Laden, the number one terror suspect implicated with masterminding the September 11, 2001 destruction of New York's World Trade Center and attack on the Pentagon. 

Jessica Chastain (The Help, The Tree of Life) stars as Maya, a CIA specialist who has devoted her entire career thus far to hunting down Bin Laden and, if possible, taking him out.  The film starts in 2003 with the 'black site' interrogation (some might say torture) of various suspects alleged to have ties with Al-Qaeda, the terror organization responsible for many of the attacks against the United States and other countries, including the 9/11 attacks.  The interrogation produces mixed results, with information that sometimes seems to get them closer, and others just being false or misleading, if they don't just end up being nothing more than traps.  As the capture of Bin Laden grows ever more bleak, Al-Qaeda ramps up the suicide bombings and attempts to cause more terror throughout the world, but Maya is undeterred at seeing her life's work go down the drain. Then, an old lead turns up, and the chase is again underway, though evidence proves to be only circumstantial, and puts the Pentagon in a position of taking a calculated, potentially internationally embarrassing attempt to finally snuff out the world's most notorious terrorist.

While Zero Dark Thirty can seem something akin to an experience rather than a movie, credit Bigelow for mounting such a difficult and controversial work within a few short months after the actual events that take place during the film's climactic raid of the compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.  How much you find riveting will likely have everything to do with how closely you associate with the events involved, but most Americans of at least a certain age will probably get the most out of seeing their government at work, as well as the events that led up to the downfall of a man who had become something of a myth or 'bogeyman' in the eyes of many.   It's to Bigelow's credit that she keeps the jingoistic rah-rah tendencies to a nearly nonexistent level, merely showcasing the events that transpired according to sources in the know, letting the audience decide for itself what to make of all of the scenes that occur. 

The most predominant controversy of the film is the depiction of scenes whereby CIA operatives are able to gather information from suspects as a result of the so-called enhanced interrogation techniques such as waterboarding and extreme isolation.  Some claim these things didn't produce any quality information, and was not integral to ultimately getting Osama bin Laden.  Others claim these scenes didn't happen at all.  Again, Boal and Bigelow assert that they were merely representing what their sources have told them in their research and interviews, which is that these things did happen and it was a source of information.  But the discussion will likely linger, and more questions will result as more information comes in. 

Was it all worth it?  That seems to be the predominant question being asked by those who witness the film.  Certainly, the US government thinks it is, if only for closure to a nation that had its collective psyche rocked by the most deadly single attack on American soil.  Viewers outside of the United States might find the events interesting, even though there is a certain detachment they might experience when none of the participants in the decade-long battle represent their side.  As such, Zero Dark Thirty isn't really made for any artistic sake, more like a historical docudrama meant to capture an important moment in history, letting commentators and spectators make what they will of what they see.

Chastain delivers a quality performance -- not overwhelmingly, but still noteworthy, as she undergoes a conversion from the woman we see somewhat shaken and disturbed throughout the interrogation sequences to the headstrong catalyst for making the final push for the assassination gamble.  A fine supporting cast puts in quality work as military and government officials who languish in their decision-making to the consternation of Maya.  It should be noted, and some may be disappointed to learn, that Maya isn't exactly a real person(as are many others in the film), though is based on one, sprinkled with amalgam of other field agents and operatives.  As real as Zero Dark Thirty may seem at times, its is, in the end, a movie, and it isn't entirely striving for meticulous production of facts when faced with the need to truncate for the simplicity of the overall story.

The final 40 minutes are what viewers will likely find the most riveting, as the elite military force, Seal Team Six, lands near the compound and proceeds to infiltrate.  We can sense, nearly first-hand, just how harrowing and difficult a mission it is, and even what a nasty business it had been, as there are a couple of instances where someone is killed for trying to protect someone from harm, an unfortunate casualty in what is surely a harrowing situation for everyone.   Bigelow has always exceled at all-out action sequences, and she gets her chance to shine as the dialogue remains mostly incidental, but the amount of tension is as thick as it comes these days, largely because it feels quite realistic.  Of course, we all know the results of the mission, so there isn't any particular surprises for viewers, but it is quite absorbing just for the pervading atmosphere of uncertainty of just how it played out in real time.

While it is controversial and isn't above reproach, Zero Dark Thirty is still well worth watching, even if only for the purposes of political and philosophical discussion regarding the war on terror.  Whether you wholeheartedly agree with the mission as necessary steps in rooting out a cancerous evil, or you are morally outraged, astonished at how terror breeds terror in response, in what must surely be a never-ending and ever-escalating war, it's worth watching, discussing, and examining as a very well-produced enactment of one of the critical eras in one country's history.
Qwipster's rating:

©2013 Vince Leo