In 2008, Kathryn Bigelow’s career was at a concerning crossroads. Her last film, 2002’s poorly received K-19: The Widowmaker was considered a major box office bomb, and the heyday of such classics as Near Dark (and for some, Strange Days and Point Break) were decades past. Life is hard enough for a female filmmaker in the male dominated dominion of Tinseltown, let alone for a perceived failure whose best work was a distant memory. Then came The Hurt Locker, and things changed dramatically. Bigelow went from pariah to pioneer, becoming the first woman EVER to win the Oscar for Best Director. Some argued her nomination and victory were part of some calculated mea culpa conspiracy on the part of paternalistic Hollywood. With her stellar follow-up, the amazing Zero Dark Thirty, such silliness should be put to rest once and for all. It’s a brilliant thriller by a more than capable moviemaker, gender be damned.
The story centers around the long, sometimes pointless search – and eventual death – of al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden. We watch as Maya, (Jessica Chastain) a young woman in the CIA, fights the powers that be, including a fellow agent assigned to torture duty (Jason Clarke), as well as higher ups (Kyle Chandler, Mark Strong, James Gandolfini) who only want results, not excuses. Over time, she picks up on the practices of a courier who may or may not be personally delivering messages to her intended target. She also survives a terrorist bombing, an assassination attempt, the death of her colleagues, and the changing face of the US government. Eventually, she traces her goal to a suburban compound outside Abbottabad, Pakistan. Gathering together a Navy SEAL team (Joel Edgerton, Chris Pratt, among others), she gives the final order: capture or kill the world’s most wanted criminal. Going about their mission with stealth and skill, the soldiers are systematic…and successful.
More thrilling than its predecessor and steeped in the kind of backdoor bureaucratic back and forth missing from her previous war film, Bigelow brings the hunt for Bin Laden to life in a way that’s both knowing and novel. We are instantly entrenched in the black site situation, currently being debated by those who (falsely) believe that the movie supports our questionable interrogation practices of the past few years. Yes, we watch as prisoners are abused, threatened, and water-boarded. We even get arguments both pro and con for the strategy. But there is little linkage between what we witness and the ends Maya eventually pursues. In her mind, beating information out of someone only leads to false positives. Instead, she does the grunt work to link her mysterious messenger to the house in Pakistan, and then uses the drained and downtrodden inmate as verification, not vindication…and even then, the road leads to frequent, flimsy nowheres.
The bigger surprise here is one of agenda. It’s clear that Bigelow wants to show how callous and careless the US was in trying to achieve Bin Laden’s capture. Decisions appear to be made with promotion, not progress in mind and such a narrow focus leads to several unsuspecting tragedies. Bombs go off with frightening frequency, even when circumstances argue for advanced security and search techniques. Zero Dark Thirty suggests that, no matter the final outcome, the War on Terror is actually unwinnable. Military checkpoints can do their job, and yet explosives seem to find their way into the most sensitive of situations. Again and again, Bigelow makes the case that violence is merely a manipulation. It’s money that drives the enemy, and following the cash yields greater results than reading shell fragments.
Better still is the last act raid, a “reenactment” of sorts criticized for its possible divulging of National Security secrets. From the Area 51 helicopters (which seem lifted out of an ’80s action flick) to the quiet, methodic takedown of the hideout, this is a director in complete control of her storytelling and narrative manipulation gifts. It’s real edge of your seat stuff, a bombastic-less exercise in single shot effectiveness. No magazines are unloaded. No soldier goes squirrely and unleashes his pent up patriotic fury on an unsuspecting household member. Instead, with the kind of precision that would make a surgeon, or the most radical Neo-Con, proud, we watch as the men storm the house, secure the perimeter, and then confirm the kill. There are no hysterics, no plotted motion picture histrionics. Bigelow has faith in the moment and lets it exist sans commentary.
It’s this matter of fact approach that makes Zero Dark Thirty a better movie than The Hurt Locker. Before, Bigelow traded on realism without really having anything coherent or conclusive to say. Maya’s journey is much more powerful than that of Sgt. First Class William James. It’s an internal struggle without the kinetic moments of EODs or hapless hair triggers. Instead, we watch as someone sacrifices everything, including themselves and their career, for the sake of a hunch. When confronted by Gandolfini (as a stand-in for CIA director Leon Panetta) she sits back, only to speak out in a manner so forceful that she persuades the seasoned politico to follow her feelings. Chastain is terrific in the role – never showy, but always in complete control.
When combined with the current events recentness of the events and the solid, non-showboating performances, Zero Dark Thirty is the perfection The Hurt Locker promised. It feels wholly authentic, even if those around it are crying over creative license. For those hoping for the standard Hollywood take on the material, look elsewhere. Like everything in this new media maxed out world, Bigelow recognizes the need to “up the ante” so to speak, and delivers a devastating denouement on obsession and the official version of things. Here’s hoping the filmmaker finalizes things with another look at our current international foreign policy. Standing alone, Zero Dark Thirty is amazing. As part of a potent potential trilogy, it could be something much, much more.