The halo around her head presages Jessica Chastain making box office history.
(2012) True Life Drama (Columbia) Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Joel Edgerton, Jennifer Ehle, Mark Strong, Edgar Ramirez, Kyle Chandler, Harold Perrineau, James Gandolfini, Jonathan Olley, Jeremy Strong, Reda Kateb, John Barrowman, Chris Pratt, Frank Grillo, Scott Adkins, J.J. Kandel, Fares Fares, Mark Duplass, Tushaar Mehra, Stephen Dillane, Lauren Shaw. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow
Zero Dark Thirty may well be the most critically acclaimed film to come out last year and also the most controversial. The left claims that it glorifies and justifies torture, while the right claims that the filmmakers used classified material to make their film, which was also intended to help boost Obama’s electoral chances. Sony promptly defused this by scheduling it after the election.
Two years after 9-11, the CIA is no closer to finding and capturing Osama bin Laden than they were the day the Towers fell. New agent Maya (Chastain) is sent to Pakistan to work with Daniel (Clarke), one of the Agency’s top interrogators (read: torturer). In their hands is Ammar (Kateb), who helped supply money to the 9-11operatives who’d crashed the planes. Daniel water boards his prisoner and subjects him to pain and humiliation in every way imaginable.
After awhile, Maya suggests fooling him into thinking he’d already given up information that had led to Al Quaeda plans being thwarted. He gives them a name – Abu Achmed (Mehra), who is seemingly an important courier who may well have ties directly to Bin Laden. Maya seizes on this as a potential clue to his whereabouts; her station chief Joseph Bradley (Chandler) isn’t sure at all. Daniel is on the fence; he is weary of torture and wants to return home and cleanse his soul again.
Maya relentlessly chases her lead over the course of years, even after they get intelligence that Abu Achmed has been dead for years. She bonds with fellow female intelligence agent Jessica (Ehle) who looks to have a lead on a double agent who has ties to the inner circle. She goes to Camp Chapman in Afghanistan to pursue that lead…which ends in tragedy.
An attempt on Maya’s life convinces her that she’s getting close but it is no longer safe for her to stay in Pakistan so she returns to Washington to become a gadfly in the Agency as her persistence begins to pay off when information she receives leads her to find that Abu Achmed is very much alive – and living in a fortress-like complex in which someone is taking great pains to keep anyone from knowing what’s going on inside. Could this be where Bin Laden has been hiding all this time?
Well, you know what the answer to that question is unless you’ve been living under a rock. The last 25 minutes of the movie is really the payoff everyone is going to the theater to see – the raid on Bin Laden’s compound, ending up with the death of the notorious terrorist leader and the end of a decade-long nightmare. This is edge of the seat stuff, even if it is mostly seen in night vision and is often confusing and terrifying – as it must have been for the SEALs on the mission – and it at times seems like not very much is going according to plan.
I do have to say before we go into the film itself that I think that most of the complaints about the film are political posturing. This is far from an endorsement of torture for one thing – if anything, it’s an indictment against it. None of the information that they get through torture is usable – none of it. The only useful information they get is through fooling the detainee into thinking that he’d already given the information and even then it’s just a name – and not even the right one.
As for being a left-wing Obama lovefest, it’s far from that either. While I can’t speak to the filmmakers being given access to classified documents (a claim denied both by the filmmakers and the CIA, as well as with analysts familiar with the Bin Laden manhunt), I can say that they take great pains to make this as apolitical as possible. Clearly, the film is about those who undertook the greatest manhunt in history, those people in the clandestine services. No, it isn’t about suave secret agents in fast cars with nifty gadgets, although there are a few of the latter. Mostly it’s about people chasing down leads in places I wouldn’t want to spend a minute in, much less months at a time. Obama barely rates a mention or two here.
The one who rates more than a mention is Jessica Chastain. She comes into her own here and even though she’s already in a very brief time turned in some amazing performances, this tops it and puts her squarely at the top of the favorites for the Best Actress Oscar (she’s already won a Golden Globe as of this writing). She’s also made box office history, becoming the first woman ever to star in the number one and number two movies in the box office race in the same week at the same time. She joins a very elite company of men who have accomplished the same difficult feat.
Her Maya is driven, relentless as a terrier and having all the social graces of a charging bull. She is fearless, standing up to her often timid bosses who are far more afraid of being wrong than they are of not finding Bin Laden. She’s a cruise missile on a factory floor and heaven help anyone who gets in the way of her goal. Chastain is wise enough to make her vulnerabilities show up from time to time – being alone against the world can wear a person down. It’s also a very lonely place to be. Incidentally, it is reported that Maya is based on a real CIA operative, although there are those who insist that the real Maya is a man.
The movie runs about two and a half hours and that might be a little long for some, although I didn’t particularly notice the length. It does have a tendency to telegraph some of the action; when you see a date you know something tragic is about to happen.
Bigelow and her production designer Jeremy Hindle do a realistic job of setting up the look and feel of the film. Hindle built a re-creation of Bin Laden’s compound in the Jordanian desert in only a couple of months. Now, I’m not the sort who can look at the film and say “oh yes, that’s exactly the way the compound looked” but others who can do it have done so.
This is a brilliant movie that carries a little baggage with it that might affect the way you view it. I urge you not to bring small children to the movie as some idiot of a parent did to our screening; this is a movie with some pretty graphic images that the squeamish are going to have a real hard time with. For the rest of us, this is a movie that has been justifiably lauded; it’s not a perfect movie but it is certainly one that is worth your time and effort to see.
REASONS TO GO: A brilliant performance by Chastain, justifiably Oscar-nominated. Realistic almost to a fault.
REASONS TO STAY: The torture scenes are very hard to take. Telegraphs some of its moves in advance.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some graphic depictions of torture that are by no means meant for children, nor are the pictures of those killed in the various bombings and raids. DO NOT BRING YOUR PRE-TEENS TO THIS MOVIE!!!!!!
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was already in pre-production and was to be about the unsuccessful hunt for Osama Bin Laden when the news broke that Bin Laden was dead. Immediately the screenplay was re-written to turn the movie into the story of the successful hunt for Bin Laden.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/22/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 95/100; this movie is as well-reviewed as it’s possible to get.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Hurt Locker
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10