Few news stories have captivated the nation in the past few years quite like the death of Osama Bin Laden. And with good reason. As Seal Team Six descended upon his Pakistani compound and subsequently killed the most wanted man in the world, they closed the book on a ten-year-saga that spans multiple attempts, terrorist attacks, two wars, and a lot of lost innocent lives, all at the hands of one madman. In 2012, not much longer than a year and a half after the May 2011 attack that killed Bin Laden, Oscar-winning filmmaker of 2009’s Best Picture The Hurt Locker, attempts to bring that epic saga of terrorism and war to the big screen in the Osama Bin Laden movie: Zero Dark Thirty. Zero Dark Thirty puts the focus of this decade-spanning story on Maya (Jessica Chastain), a hardened, underdog CIA agent with more determination to find and kill Bin Laden than anyone. Her story takes us to the darkest secrets of the American government, the most exotic and dangerous places in the middle east, and of course, eventually to the Pakistani compound where Bin Laden resides.
The hefty, stressful 165-minute run time of Zero Dark Thirty rests all on the shoulders of the star of the show: Jessica Chastain. No character gets more screen time than Chastain’s tough and calculated CIA agent, a brillaint character whose life gets so maddeningly tangled in the chase to find Bin Laden. As the story spans a decade, Chastain pulls the progression of the character off beautifully, showcasing her life’s turmoils from 2001 to 2011 in spectacular fashion. Though Chastain’s Maya is a CIA agent trained to be utterly emotionless, cold, and analytical, Chastain pulls off a performance so deep and heroic that even her most stoic stares say more than that. Sometimes it’s her bursts of anger and brilliance that light up the screen against the sometimes-demeaning male staffers of the CIA. Chastain’s character is a true underdog without being a cliched one. She doesn’t always stand up to do the right thing in times when shady torture routines are being enacted and is not as emotional as some other heroes in movies this year may be, but she always has her eyes set on killing Bin Laden, something which culminates in one of the most poignant and heartbreaking endings I’ve ever seen. Chastain walks away with the film, but that is not to discredit the supporting cast, which includes Kyle Chandler, James Gandolfini, Mark Strong, Joel Edgerton, and more, all in fine supporting positions. But if someone from the supporting cast is to be recognized for their work in this film, it’s Jason Clarke as the likable, smooth-talking, all-around American interrogator Dan, whose journey is another one that’s engrossing to watch unravel on the screen, especially in the breathlessly intense torture scenes that he lights up with his not-a-care-in-the-world attitude and unique delivery (I never thought I’d see someone call another man “bro” before waterboarding them).
We all know the end to this story. You would literally have to live in a cave (like we all assumed Bin Laden did) to not know how this unfolds. To watch it unfold, however, is a completely different experience. From the chill-inducing all-black opening that puts us through the horrors of September 11, 2001 to the score-less, breathtakingly intense final act, the story spans a decade. And the film feels like a decade, in a good way. It takes us on a journey that shows America’s transition into a post-9/11 world from the point of view of the Americans in the heat of it all in the middle east. It also takes us on a breathless revenge journey that holds nothing back. It doesn’t refrain from showing us not only the brutality of the terrorists but also the brutality of American torture methods in tough-to-watch yet utterly captivating scenes. In these scenes, it doesn’t tell us whether or not to support what the Americans are doing. It takes a morally ambiguous stance on it all, and in that sense, it’s a refreshingly non-political film for a movie so deeply rooted in the American government. Not a single shot of Obama’s post-Bin Laden raid speech is shown in this film, and the most we see of him is a brief few seconds as the irony of the media’s portrait of torture is highlighted. All the interrogations, unraveling mysteries, and terrorist attempts builds to that moment, a mere half hour before the raid begins, probably, when you put together the pieces and begin to realize how it all went do. This is when the stakes are raised and get into those epic film moments that highlight the revenge-story aspect of the hunt for Bin Laden.
This segues into the compound sequence, a tough endeavor for Bigelow to undertake, as the film isn’t about developing the Seal Team Six characters or Osama Bin Laden as the villain, so it truly is faceless heroes against a faceless villain, but by this point in the story, it’s become so much more than that. The intense, wonderfully-crafted raid on the compound doesn’t need to rely on emotional depth of the characters; it’s gliding off the fact that it is what it is. It’s truly an iconic moment of modern history, captured brilliantly on film in such a realistic, non-dramatized fashion. What I thought would be anti-climactic turned out to be resonant and satisfying, with the last few minutes of the film standing out as some of my favorite moments.
But those are favorite moments in a film with a lot to favor. There’s some breathtakingly intense sequences here, heightened by the gritty, realistic, yet cinematic cinematography the Bigelow utilizes to tell this epic story. This film is a momentous one: a war story without a battlefield, a secret agent movie without the gadgets and style, and a good-vs-evil story without the moral clarity or the true final showdown. It is so anti-rousing and anti-easily emotional that in that, it becomes resonant, rousing, and emotional all the way through, simply because it is what it is: the Osama Bin Laden movie. Sure, Argo may be more entertaining because it’s more classically structured and humorous, but at the very least, you have to have a tremendous amount of respect for this film. In truth, it’d be tough to not make this film rousing, emotional, and good. But Bigelow didn’t simply make it good, she made it something worth raving about, and she might as well just written the film’s title on the Best Picture Winners Card for the second time in a row.
FINAL GRADE: ★★★★★★★★★★ (10/10 stars)
FINAL SAY: Momentous, epic, rousing, and brilliantly made, Zero Dark Thirty is the amazing film everyone wanted out of the “Osama Bin Laden” movie. It’s an intense, wonderfully-crafted saga with a good supporting cast, and a fantastic lead performance from Jessica Chastain.