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ZERO DARK THIRTY is a film that’s inherently simple yet staggeringly complex. It cements Kathryn Bigelow as one of the best and most exciting directors working in Hollywood. Bold and unrelenting with intelligence to spare, ZDT is easily the best film of 2012.
It’s almost a guarantee you know the film’s story. It follows a CIA agent simply known as Maya (Jessica Chastain) while she becomes a part of and eventually leads the manhunt for Osama bin Laden over the course of 10 years. While the setup is direct and simple Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal, who Bigelow worked with on THE HURT LOCKER, don’t take any easy turns along the way. ZDT’s immerses itself in the dark corners of the CIA’s search. While the main goal of Maya is to find bin Laden the film drives home the question, “At what cost?”
Some of what this refers to, namely the film’s depiction of torture by the CIA, has already been discussed and debated in the press. ZDT has been called pro-torture by everyone from film critics to U.S. congressmen. While this is an important discourse to have it must be pointed out that both sides are wrong. From a narrative point of view Boal’s script plays like objective journalism. It doesn’t try to preach or manipulate in these areas. It lets the film play and allows the viewer to have his or her owns thoughts. It’s a breath of fresh air for a screenwriter and director to trust in the intelligence of the audience to be active participants. That may be its greatest strength.
And even while doing all this ZDT finds a way to also make you emotionally invested in what’s happening on screen. The story finds its emotion by connecting you with Maya. It makes you feel her optimism, pain and frustration while hunting bin Laden. There’s never a moment when you’re not invested in her as a character. And Chastain nails it, from her first scene to a heartbreaking denouement she makes Maya’s evolution over these ten years believable and moving.
This lack of connection to characters was the biggest most people’s biggest criticism with THE HURT LOCKER. You never quite feel for Jeremy Renner’s character like you do for Maya. And it’s this element that allows ZDT to transcend its historical frame. Yes, it is about the hunting down and killing of Osama bin Laden, but the center of the film is Maya. It’s her journey that takes center stage and carries the film.
That’s not to imply that ZDT is not also a great action film and an interesting behind-the-scenes study of the effort of intelligence agencies to capture bin Laden. In fact, its action set pieces are technically brilliant, namely the film’s breathtaking third act. Bigelow has a dazzling touch in these sequences that creates a feeling of controlled unpredictability. It’s an exquisite and precise piece of filmmaking. As it begins you instantly realize you’re in the hands of a master.
Every CIA strategy scene crackles with energy and enthralls us with a fly-on-the-wall curiosity while also giving us necessary information. An extraordinary example is Mark Strong’s bombastic entrance that jolts you, and Maya, shape after enduring a string of dead-ends has left the picture decidedly cold.
Along with Bigelow and Boal praise should also be heaped upon the amazing job done by the film’s ensemble. Chastain gives a career-defining performance that carries ZDT. Jason Clarke, even though absent for long stretches, never feels secondary. He impresses from the very first time on screen. Other notables in small, but effective roles are Kyle Chandler, Strong, James Galdonfini and Joel Edgerton.
There are moments in ZDT where you know how you should feel, there are other times when you don’t quite know. Psychologically the film takes you to places few, especially those coming out of Hollywood, even dare to try. And after the credits roll it leaves you there. Nothing is easy about ZDT. Bigelow and Boal displayed their potential with THE HURT LOCKER and have now realized it. Their new film dazzles, entertains, moves and finally haunts. It’s an important, game changing American masterpiece.