Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Cast: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Ehle, Mark Strong, James Gandolfini
Running Time: 157 minutes
Release Date: January 25th
The existence of Zero Dark Thirty is pretty miraculous. Originally developed as an account of The Battle of Tora Bora—a 2001 military campaign in the mountains of Afghanistan where Osama bin Laden was believed to be hiding—both plot and production needed a massive overhaul after bin Laden was killed last year. Writer Mark Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow had to alter on the fly, crafting a story that takes you from 9/11 all the way to the assault on the compound housing the al-Qaeda leader in Abottabad. That it’s a charged, concise and kinetically crafted movie is miracle number two.
In their last collaboration, The Hurt Locker, Bigelow and Boal delivered a visceral gut punch that was big on booms but low on story. With Zero Dark Thirty, they’ve kept all that explosive wallop yet infused it with an obsessive attention to drip-feeding a densely detailed plot that recalls David Fincher’s cryptic puzzle-solving approach in Zodiac.
After cultivating an image as a director of heavily infused testosterone films ranging from Bros n’ Bombs, Bros n’ Boards and Bros n’ (U-)Boats, Bigelow has delivered a female lead every bit as powerful and memorable as all that came before her. Chastain’s performance as Maya is astonishing; she is cold, calculated and utterly consumed by the hunt for bin Laden—no histrionics, cry face or savaging bottles of Sauvignon Blanc here. As one of her CIA co-workers quips to here, “Life’s a lot easier for me when you get your way.”
While Chastain is undoubtedly the driving force here, her supporting cast, a whose-who of movies and TV shows, are all excellent. In particular, Jason Clarke excels in one of the meatier roles as Dan, a CIA officer who has to deal with uglier side of enhanced interrogation techniques—read as torture. Elsewhere, Kyle Chandler looks like he hasn’t aged a day since aiding in the release of US diplomats in Argo while James Gandolfini and Mark Strong give tough, convincing performances despite wearing rather daft wigs.
The Hurt Locker was intense by design, the ever present possibility that a cobbled together IED could devastate a market at any moment. In Zero Dark Thirty Bigelow lures you into a false sense of security time after time. Just when you get comfortable with the constant globe-hopping, a small detail will allude to a real-life event and the tension creeps through the screen again; a red double-decker bus navigating the London streets or the appearance of Camp Chapman.
And with the final—almost thirty minute—attack on Osama’s fortified house, Bigelow has delivered one of the most breathtaking sequences in years—all the more impressive considering everyone knows the outcome, and with some research, a lot of the details. Credit too, to Chris Pratt and Joel Edgerton, excellent actors in their own rights, who manage to elevate their characters above generic grunts.
Zero Dark Thirty has so much that could have worked against it—a rushed production, the possibility of slipping into jingoistic propaganda, depictions of torture and its huge running time—yet it’s unlikely there will be a more enthralling, clever or tautly made movie released for some time.