Sunday, January 13, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty

Grade: 97 (A)

Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty has been plagued with controversy from its inception: first dogged by rumors of pro-Obama politics, then of threatening national security by disclosing government secrets, and finally by charges of being pro-torture. It should come as no surprise that these accusations are all a load of bunk, cases of political commentators projecting their own biases on a far more complicated film. Zero Dark Thirty is a tale of obsession and revenge, but that depiction shouldn’t be mistaken as support. It instead joins Munich as a brilliant portrait of how revenge, even when it seems justified, is messy, unsatisfying, and hollow.

CIA officer Maya (Jessica Chastain) arrives in Pakistan fresh-faced and inexperienced. She joins Dan (Jason Clarke), a fellow officer who devotes his time torturing detainees for information relating to al-Qaeda. Maya is consumed by one desire: to find and kill Osama bin Laden. Even after fellow officers are either killed or give up on the manhunt, Maya’s single-minded determination never flags, and she frequently buts heads with other officers, many of whom believe bin Laden to be either dead or neutralized. When a key bit of information leads her to a safehouse in Pakistan, Maya demands a raid to find and kill America’s Most Wanted.

Those who took issue with Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal’s portrayal of Iraq soldiers in The Hurt Locker will no doubt have the same complaints here: Zero Dark Thirty clearly takes dramatic license with the events leading up to bin Laden’s death. But Bigelow and Boal’s claim to “journalistic approach” has less to do with factual information and more to do with the attention to minutiae, fly-on-the-wall verisimilitude, and dense procedural structure. The film is less a depiction of what actually happened and more a narrative about America’s decade long, often ugly fight for vengeance.

Bigelow brings the same sense of gut-wrenching tension that served her well on The Hurt Locker, but Zero Dark Thirty is an expansion in ambition, no less than a portrait of all of America’s failures in morality (i.e., the use of torture, which couldn’t be depicted in an uglier or more futile way), apathy towards its supposed greatest enemy, and the long, frustrating, idealism-draining manhunt. Bigelow populates the film with great character actors (Kyle Chandler, Mark Strong, James Gandolfini, Edgar Ramirez, Joel Edgerton) as the various pencil pushers and soldiers that either assist or hinder Maya, with two particularly strong turns from Clarke as the brutal but human torturer and Jennifer Ehle as Maya’s closest friend and ally.

But make no mistake: this is Chastain’s picture through-and-through. Many of the film’s best moments come from Chastain’s quiet determination and frustration dealing with both apathy and casual sexism from fellow CIA officers, as if they don’t believe the manhunt is worth it or that some girl belongs there doing “man’s work” (no doubt Bigelow’s own experiences as a woman who directs action movies informs some of this material). More importantly, Maya is an all too-human face on America’s hunt for justice: decent but fatally flawed, consumed by obsession, and destined to a dissatisfaction and emptiness even after the world’s most dangerous man is put out to pasture. At the end of it all, Zero Dark Thirty knows that it’s little more than a pyrrhic victory: our enemies haven’t stopped, and one evil man’s death doesn’t bring back the 3,000 killed in our decade defining trauma. All that’s left is pain.

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