Review: Zero Dark Thirty

Zero Dark Thirty
Directed by Katherine Bigelow
Written by Mark Boal
Starring Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, James Gandolfini, Mark Duplass

Playing NOW in NYC & LA

‘Zero Dark Thirty’ is, as a CIA agent would say, pure tradecraft. Kathryn Bigelow’s new chronicle of the hunt to kill Osama Bin Laden is two hours and forty minutes of hyper-realistic, emotionally taxing, and bloody well done action drama.

The film covers a ten year span, starting from the attack on the World Trade Center in 2001. Jessica Chastain stars as Maya, an implacable agent assigned to the Middle Eastern theater of the shadowy, covert war on terror. The film opens with her first day on the job, sitting in on an interrogation conducted by Dan (Jason Clarke). Because everyone knows going in how this is going to end, the trick Bigelow has to pull off is to keep everyone invested in every step of the chase.

She does, handsomely. Throughout the ten year period covered in the film, a time-span where the stakes rise with each attack, from the London bombings to the failed car bomb in Times Square, Maya doggedly pursues a lead she has on Bin Laden himself. She is searching for a courier named Abu Achmed, who is supposedly trusted “at the highest levels of leadership.” Although some of her fellow operatives, like station chief Joseph Bradley (Kyle Chandler), doubt the strength of her lead, she works at the mission obsessively. Obviously, the rest is history, but the details of the story that lead up to that final ending are exciting enough that to mention more of them here would spoil things.

The acting is top-notch. Jessica Chastain is guaranteed an Oscar nomination for her stark portrayal of Maya. It’s great to see Chastain in her element as an obsessed, unstoppable woman who just does not fit in with the civilian world. Jason Clarke is also brilliant–he can go from waterboarding detainees and stuffing them in small boxes to making you laugh as he cracks one liners and feeds his pet monkeys in the blink of an eye. The actors who play Seal Team Six are also perfect for the part, they also are likeable, indeed familiar to us, but deadly.

This combination of utter, honest, as-real-as-possible violence mixed with humor is part of the paradox of Bigelow’s film. She does not pull any punches on graphically depicting the treatment of terrorist detainees in the CIA “black sites”, but she does not villainize it either. Maya’s character is shocked by it at first–but she forces herself to overcome her revulsion to get the job done. And the film shows that the testimony of those tortured prisoners does lead to the eventual capture of Bin Laden–but Bigelow shows that without moralizing or editorializing that from the perspective of either left or right. Her goal throughout seems to have been to deliver as realistic a portrayal as possible.

The most interesting part of the film for me, however, is the journey of the character of Maya. Bigelow, the first woman to ever win an Oscar for Best Director, has not come across as a serious feminist–while she wants more women to get into directing, she has said publicly that her work is not about “breaking gender roles.” In Zero Dark Thirty, however, the arc of Maya’s character is very much about a woman overcoming the challenges of making it in a man’s world. During the shocking interrogation scene, Dan asks her whether she needs to sit out or get a cup of coffee. And there are a series of obstacles in her way in the form of traditionally good looking, nicely tanned tall white men wearing power suits. They talk down to her and condescend, but Maya never gives up.

For example, there is a brilliant scene of this when Maya confronts her station chief. She needs his approval to set up some surveillance on a potential lead, and he doesn’t want to give it. She shouts at him until he backs down in a very alpha vs. alpha kind of way. He storms away from her into a board room, and as the door closes we see a bunch of men stand to attention to greet him. Later on, when Maya finally works up enough evidence to make a presentation to the Director of the CIA (played hilariously by James Gandolfini), she is not allowed to sit at the big, bad board room table. But after the mission is finally over and she gets on the military plane, the pilot tells her to sit wherever she wants.

One has to wonder whether Bigelow modeled a few of those military chain-of-command jerks after some people who may have doubted her ability to make it in the man’s world of Hollywood. But if Zero Dark Thirty is prove of anything, it’s proof that that is just what Bigelow has done. Go see this movie.

– Timothy Wainwright


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