“Wonder ye then at the fiery hunt?” -Moby-Dick, Chapter 42,
Zero Dark Thirty is arguably so good because it’s real. When an al-Quaeda agent is water-boarded in the first scene of the film, or when a double-decker bus explodes in London (as actually happened in 2005), the viewer cannot take his/her eyes off the screen, because the global terrorism and the efforts to kill Osama bin Laden depicted in this film are still tender wounds for most of us. That being said, for such a topical film, Zero manages to transcend politics. This is not a movie about Osama bin Laden’s death; it’s a movie about Maya (Jessica Chastain), the woman who surrenders everything to make it happen. It is the extremely personal story, perfectly directed and written by Katherine Bigelow and Mark Boal, of the hunt for Osama bin Laden, the white whale to Maya’s Ahab.
When she arrives in the Middle East, Maya steps right into a torture session led by her comrade Dan (Jason Clarke), whose charisma carries the movie through its first thirty minutes. Clarke’s needed because the tenacity of Chastain’s character Maya, who proves by the end of the film to be the most driven character in recent memory, takes a while to get established. She hides in the back of the room for the first torture sessions and her character seems scattered until one of her friends gets blown up by a suicide bomber, after which point she becomes unstoppable. Whether she’s berating CIA Chief Joseph Bradley (Kyle Chandler) or introducing herself as the “m———-r” who found bin Laden’s compound, it’s Best Actress material, without a doubt, and if anyone doubts her during the course of the film, its final minutes will convince them otherwise.
The strong actors opposite Chastain include Chandler, Clarke, Mark Strong, Jennifer Ehle, and James Gandolfini as a hilarious Leon Panetta. Certain characters get periods of uninterrupted screen time which seem unbalanced at first, but by the end of the movie it’s clear that this is Maya’s story, regardless of how good the ensemble is. The characters, however, are all compelling because of how Maya inspires them, so they’re made even better by Chastain’s knockout performance, which is never diminished by the action scenes between her bits. The personal and militaristic elements of the movie blend perfectly.
Once in Islamabad, Maya hunts for one Abu Ahmed, an aide of bin Laden’s whose discovery, after over an hour of espionage in the heart of al-Quaeda’s operations, leads to the climactic raid on bin Laden’s compound by the Navy SEALs. There’re no dull moments, because as this quest goes on, terror attacks keep happening across the world, and Maya does nothing about them; viewers are forced to grit their teeth and trust Maya like the CIA has to. The final raid is treated perfectly, with no more explosive flair than deserved. The film ends not a note of whooping victory but with intimate, conflicting emotions.
Zero is not a political movie. Yes, there are explicit depictions of torture, and yes, these tortures do indirectly lead Maya and Dan to Abu Ahmed, but torture is never elevated to a heroic level; director Katherine Bigelow is always conscious of the moral dilemmas of the CIA’s actions. Zero is not afraid of politics; it simply steps beyond them. It is a story about people. One’s perceptions of the film might be swayed by political views, but that is not any reflection on the film’s quality. Its cinematography is so perfect as to not need mentioning, its acting is some of the year’s best, and its emotional story will last. Score: 9.5/10.
Jake Bittle / A&E Editor