‘Zero Dark Thirty’ Transcends the Hype

By Tim Posada, 1/17/2013


It’s still surprising that “Point Break” director, Kathryn Bigelow, returned to the Hollywood game with a critical hit, “The Hurt Locker”. And here she is again with “Zero Dark Thirty”, a compelling dramatization of the decade-long manhunt for Osama bin Laden. Easily a candidate for the “too soon” category, but in the hands of such a driven visionary, a masterpiece replaces what could’ve been 9/11 exploitation.

Stationed in a covert base overseas, Jessica Chastain plays a member of the elite team of spies and military operatives who secretly devoted themselves to finding Osama Bin Laden in Columbia Pictures’ “Zero Dark Thirty”. (photo courtesy of Sony Pictures)

This isn’t an action-packed ride. In fact, it probably includes less high-speed thrills than Bigelow’s previous military flick, which was no gun-wielding picnic either. Focusing on CIA newbie, Maya (Jessica Chastain), “Zero Dark Thirty” highlights the intelligence work behind the historic manhunt. Just as “The Social Network” made HTML code interesting, “Zero Dark Thirty” has the difficult task of remaining true to the agents involved without jazzing up the facts too much.

This is a lengthy film that explores a complex investigation riddled with incredibly circumstantial intel, even up to the end. Rather than focus on the final mission that resulted in bin Laden’s death, we begin with the initial stages of the investigation, attempting to find a terrorist in a haystack of hearsay and easily dismissed fragments of truth. Our only guide is Maya; I imagine a cipher character representative of the few agents who remained involved in a frustrating job that seemed all too hopeless.

Chastain captures this melancholy in a performance that makes her a solid contender for the Oscar for Best Actress. With her second nomination (first in the Best Actress category) and involvement in yet another major critical work (adding to “The Tree of Life”, “The Help” and “Take Shelter”), she’s quickly proving to be one of the most versatile performers.

As for the rest of the rather large cast — including familiar faces like James Gandolfini, Mark Strong, Kyle Chandler, Harold Perrineau, Chris Pratt and Joel Edgerton (you might remember many of them from popular TV series) — Jason Clarke as fellow CIA agent, Dan, holds his own next to Chastain. So jaded because he tortures a detainee (perhaps more), but he’s disturbed that soldiers killed his pet monkeys. Complex and morally ambiguous, Clarke’s character represents the film’s primary dilemma: at what cost?

The film met early criticism thanks to politicians like Sen. John McCain, who condemned it for featuring torture (they claim none occurred … no comment). Come the hype of awards season, the film also met condemnation by human rights advocates and Academy members for its “glorification” of torture. I find these criticisms empty, not because I support torture, but because I don’t believe “Zero Dark Thirty” does this. Like Robert de Niro’s “The Good Shepherd” — a haunting film about the CIA’s dark origin — “Zero Dark Thirty” is an opportunity to see how a secret organization functions (or could function).

The film’s title — a military term for an unspecified time in the late night or early morning — defines its tonal ambiguity quite well. Far from propaganda or exposé, it’s as close to a neutral exploration as possible. For some, that’s admirable, while others declare cowardice. For myself, I see the neutrality as a thin facade masking a complex web about the tragic state of the world. Monstrosity is often met with monstrosity, and in such a high profile case, darkness engulfs all.

As a factual story, who knows how accurate it is. The truth lies less in its depiction of day-to-day operations, instead favoring characters, pondering how an investigation like this robs people of their lives. “Zero Dark Thirty” reveals the true fight against terrorists –– one that lacks a clearly seen enemy. It’s easy to punch; it’s harder to know which direction to swing. And when the final strike occurs, we’re left wondering what’s next. When the man who ignited the “War on Terror” is defeated, where does the country go next?

“Zero Dark Thirty” is just as compelling as could be expected. Is it Best Picture good? I’d say no, but it’s still a stellar masterwork that’ll become fodder for ethics and political science classes for years to come. It’s an easy one to embrace regardless of political affiliation, or at least a great starting point for many a worthwhile debate.



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