‘Zero Dark Thirty’ shows the wayward trail to catch Osama bin Laden

Jessica Chastain in 'Zero Dark Thirty' — Photo courtesy of Jonathan Olley
Jessica Chastain in ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ — Photo courtesy of Jonathan Olley

The controversial Zero Dark Thirty, directed by Oscar winner Kathryn Bigelow, is a dark, gritty look at the decade-long hunt to capture and kill Osama bin Laden. Identified by CIA operatives as UBL, the evasive man precipitated a search that took many trips down several rabbit holes. Along the way, we’re told one person kept her eye on the prize. Although her identity remains hidden, in Zero Dark Thirty that person is named Maya (Jessica Chastain), and she soon becomes the girl who cried wolf among the elite spy agency. Very few people believe her line of questioning and ultimate answers.

Chastain gives a fine performance as the central character, letting us believe in her dedication to find the man responsible for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Maya tries many avenues, tracking down sources, learning new names and connections, digging deeper and deeper. She acts on hunches, witnesses scenes of obvious torture and watches as some of her colleagues are killed in the field. With each setback, she seems to gain more energy and courage. She’s an unlikely action hero, but one who is the definition of riveting. She’s also deeply divided, showing discomfort at the brutal tactics used to extract information from captives, but also unwilling to let it stop.

Many scenes in Zero Dark Thirty are not pretty. The first hour features heinous depictions of alleged torture, where a captive prisoner is subjected to water boarding, humiliation and abuse. It creates an uncomfortable aura about the film, and these scenes have largely drawn the most criticism from government officials and Hollywood actors alike. Others have derided the so-called “journalism” of the movie, debating whether the events are real, conflated or a mixture of both.

As a dramatic testament, Zero Dark Thirty is a movie that excels to great heights. I was reminded of Syriana, the confusing but engaging George Clooney movie from a few years ago. We’re thrown into the CIA’s hunt for bin Laden, expected to know the names and recent history of the War on Terror. In the beginning, it takes a lot of close listening to follow Mark Boal’s quick-paced dialogue. But after we enter the hurricane, there’s no leaving its enveloping winds. We are whisked away on this hunt, constantly piecing together information like Maya and her colleagues.

The movie’s strongest suit is linking the chapter headings from the past decade into one narrative. The terrorist bombings in London and the attempted attacks in Times Square all lead to nail-biting scenes of suspense, and we’re given behind-the-scenes access of how the characters respond to the bleak developments. Much more than the best efforts of Washington politicians, the movie makes a case for the connected, convoluted and continued efforts of the disparate enemy forces attacking the western world. Seeing everything in one two-hour-and-30-minute sitting offers understanding to recent global history.

Chastain is one of the only actors to stand out in the piece, although there’s some nice supporting work from Jennifer Ehle and Kyle Chandler. But even Chastain is masked by the unbelievably intense story. Zero Dark Thirty is simply not about the characters involved; it’s about the manhunt to solve perhaps the greatest crime in American history. When plot matters so much, characters sometimes seem to get in the way.

The finale of the 157-minute movie features images that have been burned into our retinas. We see the compound in Pakistan. We hear about the wives and the children. We realize how close the Pakistani military is located to the house. We hear of the brave soldiers, the nighttime mission, the tension of the president’s administration. What Zero Dark Thirty adds is personalization. Now we enter the house, with the aid of night vision, experiencing firsthand the raid that ended not just bin Laden’s life, but also the complicated journey that began 10 years prior. And, yet, it all feels incomplete, as if the story is unfortunately still being written.

By John Soltes / Publisher / John@HollywoodSoapbox.com

  • Zero Dark Thirty

  • 2012

  • Directed by Kathryn Bigelow

  • Written by Mark Boal

  • Starring Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Ehle, Harold Perrineau and Joel Edgerton

  • Running time: 157 minutes

  • Rated R for strong violence, including brutal disturbing images, and for language

  • Rating: ★★★★

John Soltes

John Soltes is an award-winning journalist. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Earth Island Journal, The Hollywood Reporter, New Jersey Monthly and at Time.com, among other publications. E-mail him at john@hollywoodsoapbox.com

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