Director: Kathryn Bigelow
MPAA Rating: R
Studio: Annapurna Pictures
Zero Dark Thirty is a relentless, unflinching and obsessive procedural thriller that encapsulates 10 years of the pursuit and assassination of Osama bin Laden.
Almost faux–TV documentary in style but making full use of smart, sharp dramatic fabrications and liberties when it comes to characters and timeframes, the movie may strike some as politically partisan because its depiction of murky morality carries deep and damning implications.
But so, too, do its scenes of waterboarding juxtaposed with a TV interview in which President Obama says he does not believe in waterboarding. Then again, former President Bush is on record as saying that he didn't think too often about Osama, while it is President Obama who pulled the trigger on the assassination plan. In any case, Zero Dark Thirty is the newest collaboration between director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal, who gave us The Hurt Locker. It’s a men-and-women-in-groups workplace drama set during the genuine terror, confusion and anxiety post-9/11. It’s easy to imagine Howard Hawks directing a film like this if he were alive today.
CIA operatives in the Middle East are trying to find bin Laden, who has vanished somewhere in the Tora Bora mountains, possibly in some hidden tribal zone. Among the best of the agents is a relentless, psychologically adept man played to perfection by Jason Clarke, who thinks nothing of using “enhanced interrogation” techniques like waterboarding, even though the information he extracts is often useless. Into the mix comes the audience surrogate, played by Jessica Chastain, a prickly, socially isolated, single-minded agent who doggedly pursues a lead to bin Laden’s hiding place slipped to her by an al Qaeda courier.
Like Zodiac before it, Zero Dark Thirty is a long, methodical, bracingly intelligent, expertly made, spectacularly well acted movie about an obsessive loner on a mission. It’s tense and absorbing but not especially emotionally involving. To its credit, even in its last third, during which the Naval Seal Team stage the raid on bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan, the movie stays clear of jingoistic grandstanding or chest-beating. But the people who’ve made it have every reason to crow; this is by a mile one of the very best movies of the year.