Director: Kathryn Bigelow
⭐ ⭐ ⭐ 1/2
There is a man- no, a dog- chained in a room devoid of light but for the desert sun sneaking in underneath the only exit. He has eaten very little, drank even less and he has been kept awake by endless screamo metal played at a soul-shredding volume that is the soundtrack of horrible dreams. He shit himself a long time ago because he had no other choice. They are keeping him here because they believe he is partially responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks and the deaths of over 3,000. Someone is, at least.
Most American citizens who were at least age 5 at the time remember where they were on 9/11. I was sitting next to my classmate Trent Edmonson in the 4th grade, watching the chaos unfold on NBC. Zero Dark Thirty, Oscar winning director Kathryn Bigelow’s follow-up to her killer 2009 Iraq War drama The Hurt Locker, begins on 9/11 with only the sounds of that day. The phone conversations of people who don’t know what is happening, of people trapped in the World Trade Center and the first responders trying to reach them. It is thoroughly chilling, a nostalgia trip of the worst kind for everyone who remembers that day.
The film follows Maya- the pseudonym of an agent quite possibly still in the field and played with icy fury by Jessica Chastain- as she begins the decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden, the man who claimed responsibility for the attacks. This hunt involves capturing and torturing many al-Qaeda operatives and truly brings to horrifying light the torture (Not interrogation. Torture.) techniques employed by the CIA, something this film has already caught flack for. The CIA’s view is that they did what was necessary to find bin Laden and the film doesn’t condemn their actions either. What it does make understood is that in order to catch demons you very often have to become a demon yourself and this is where the film falters.
Most unsettling are the silences during key moments- that feeling of listening and looking for an enemy you cannot see until is far too late.
While Chastain provides a strong, volatile presence to everything- particularly as her mission begins to fall apart- we have no reason as to why in the beginning Maya is so committed to catching bin Laden. There are fallen comrades to give her a lust for vengeance later on but it is uncertain why she is crying by film’s end. Is she crying because she is exhausted as the viewer or because now she can breathe for the first time in 10 years? The film lets Maya express her humanity at the end when throughout the film she has been nothing but an ice queen with a mission to complete. Like Zodiac the film follows obsession to its core but unlike that film it thinks that one can come back from the darkness. No one can come back from that much.
This is cerrtainly Bigelow’s most technically masterful film although as a whole it is a few cuts under The Hurt Locker. This film is not a collection of frenetic scenes of war. It is a patient movie about predators waiting for their prey to slip up so the film is an eye, watching, unblinking for long stretches. There are no sudden movements. This is also a more vibrant film. The Pakistani desert appears more serene when it truly isn’t, cities bathed in sunshine seem so enticing, blood is darker and feels more real when it is spilled. Most unsettling are the silences during key moments- that feeling of listening and looking for an enemy you cannot see until is far too late.
For 2/3 of the way Bigelow’s rhythm is nearly perfect. Atrocities followed by headway in the hunt followed by atrocities rollercoaster the film and its only hiccup is the titular raid on bin Laden’s compound that practically occurs in real time at 00:30 Pakistani time. While it is thrilling to watch this moment in history play out minute by minute it does not exactly make for gripping cinema particularly after the last shot is fired and the Seal team responsible is cleaning up their mess and prepping for evac. The strength of the film is measured in just how arresting Zero Dark Thirty is even when you know the outcome.