One of the greatest war accomplishments of the 20th century being transitioned to film and released in theaters only one year after its occurrence demands certain levels of precision, respect, and accuracy. Even if it is a mostly Hollywood affair. As many asked about Oliver Stone’s 2006 ‘World Trade Center’ 9/11 depiction “is this too soon?” as well as concern regarding the virtues of said respect and accuracy, that particular film did not so much meet them, thus inevitably drowning into the obscurities of retail bargain bins. The good news is that Zero Dark Thirty will most likely not meet the same fate, as it should not only be regarded as one of the more important films of 2012, but absolutely one the best… which of course it is considering all of the award nominations it has received and won.
Zero stars Jessica Chastain which many will remember from the 2011 drama ‘The Help,’ and directed by Kathryn Bigelow, who also directed 2009’s ‘The Hurt Locker,’ another political war drama which happened to win that year’s Oscar for best picture. The talent behind Zero is well displayed in this perfectly paced, well thought-out political action drama. The film spans the past decade starting in 2001, jumping a few years at a time whilst highlighting almost every major terrorist act by Al-Qaeda around the world. It follows American CIA intelligence officers during before, during and after these events, all their struggles therein, leading up to the finale when the hunt for Osama Bin Laden finally ended in May of 2011.
The movie grips the audience right from the start, with two CIA operatives interrogating an Al-Qaeda member using various means of torture in order to extract bits of information regarding whereabouts and intentions of other factions of his jihad terrorist group. Jessica Chastain plays Maya (no last name), who is a CIA military operative just starting her career and really just getting her feet wet. While she doesn’t participate in any means of this torture, most of it is done by her counterpart. The most extreme content in the film lies solely within these interrogation scenes, therefore any viewer not comfortable with such extreme means may, but should not, turn a blind eye to the intentions of Zero, because it attempts and succeeds in bringing us the most comprehensive summation of one of the most vital manhunts in American history. That said, the character of Maya begins as a very new and insecure agent; as she states later in the film, due to her being recruited to the CIA right out of high school (however unrealistic that may be, more on that later), hunting Bin Laden has been her ONLY assignment for the first decade of her career. While the film mostly follows the actions of Maya, Chastain doesn’t “steal” the show here, because it really is the story of the manhunt that does. Therefore it was important for Chastain’s character to complement the story instead of leading it, and given that her performance is absolutely impeccable, she was the perfect casting choice for the role.
Zero also stars a small cast of other CIA operatives, none of which are major names, but the one most closely tied to Maya is fellow agent Jessica, played by Jennifer Ehle. A great highlight of the film’s characters was seeing these two women’s close relationship, and whose lives are almost completely engulfed by this mission, and the only scenes of “personal” time being few of them having drinks while on breaks from their work. It should be comforting to Americans that the CIA (at least as presented here) never fooled around with silly office politics and submissive conveniences getting in the way of getting the job done. This was very well written into the script as we see during the scenes where the roughest language was present; plenty of toes and feet are stepped on, friction between agents are not brushed under the rug, and basic human functions such as food and sleep come secondary. We see Maya grow from an insecure new operative to someone who has become so hard and experienced in such a dangerous profession, that eventually she becomes nothing short of an incredibly strong, intimidating and no nonsense woman, who strangely enough is STILL considered by most of her male agent counterparts as “the girl.” Not that this should matter much in the end in terms of anything anti-feminist, considering she shows more guts and determination than most men in the film. Perhaps the most telling of this almost inspirational growth is at first hearing Maya wimply advise the Al Qaeda terrorist being tortured at start “you can help yourself by being truthful,” to boldly telling one of her CIA chief directors about the Bin Laden hideout “I’m the motherfucker who found the place, sir.” Chastain’s gradual maturity is so well captured and acted, that even if the mission trumps her as the star of the show, we can’t help but love her at the end, and even way before that.
What keeps the film running strong is that all the major terrorist acts throughout the decade, including the bombing in London in 2005 and suicide bombings in Pakistan which claimed the lives of American operatives, are so perfectly paced. The entire time the team of authorities are tracking leads to Al Qaeda, interrogating members caught, and clashing ideas within their own offices with each other. Things never slow down or ever become boring even at a length of two and a half hours, and the excellent direction by Bigelow, mostly using the method of shaky cam, brings us a film where the presentation of true to life realism is top priority. Solid performances never even hint at keeping us out of being engrossed in the experience. There is no room here for silly romances, questionable work abilities, self-esteem issues, or even grievances for lost agents. The mission is what matters most, and Maya herself will stop at nothing to find Bin Laden. The only scene where she slows for just a short while is after a fellow operative is killed by a suicide bomber, yet she is once again forced back on her feet by another lead.
There are no blatant negatives to such a film so focused on the story, except for those counting on complete historical accuracy. By this meaning that during the actual manhunt, there was never a person named Maya who led the team in such a way as presented in the film. Instead, the character of Maya is a sort of summation of a whole team of people (specifically, a group of female operatives known as “the sisterhood”); a group who had reports ignored by the greater agency, similar but not exact to the struggles Maya goes through in the film. Yet, Maya’s friend Jessica is based on an actual person. Moreover, the controversial methods used to interrogate the terrorist member at the start of the film may not have been what operatives actually used (although hopefully they did, but that’s a personal opinion), but instead a certain level of exaggeration is used to keep things interesting for us. Zero does what it has to do, being something that is presenting to us a story based on actual real life events. Things must be somewhat exaggerated, dumbed down, simplified, or changed in order to give us an entertaining film worth watching. Even though this is done with Zero, that should be expected and never detracts from the experience; it gives us the easier version of a complex turn of events that would be more comprehensible to the average American Joe or Jane. Because really, who actually knows all the political and military details of this decade-long mission besides the CIA themselves? Granted, this is still a very mature and greatly intricate piece of work, so one should not think they are really being watered down or catered to.
The final act is perhaps the only portion where the film’s direction takes a somewhat different approach, from a shaky-cam political drama to an almost “found footage” documentary style, when we follow the navy seal team responsible for the breaking into Bin Laden’s hideout and work towards finally assassinating him (yes, spoiler alert, Bin Laden dies!). While this is not a boring scene, we can find ourselves missing the conflicting intense dialogue scenes by our CIA agents, and of course Chastain herself. It’s a bit ironic that the most interesting part of a film made to lead up to a seal team infiltration mission is actually not the infiltration mission but everything leading up to it. It is still a wonderfully directed scene, and just like the serious nature of the film as a whole, there is thankfully nothing overly dramatic about it.
Zero Dark Thirty is truly a wonderful achievement in recreating such an important series of events in our history. It had a lot of responsibility behind it, and regarding the necessary balance of respect, precision and accuracy (despite the interjected Hollywood flairs), Zero accomplishes beautifully to give us this balance perfectly. Bigelow had quite a job to do with making this not only an important film but an entertaining one, and my hat goes off to her success in doing so. I can already see this being played in millions of 12th grade classes years in the future to recap to students what our country went through during this opening decade of our 21st century.
Basic and minimal. We get 4 fairly short behind-the-scenes recaps on the making of the film, about 7 to 9 minutes long each, and we hear what we pretty much know already, about the importance of making this film very realistic and so on. One of these short docs features only Jessica Chastain herself on how she felt during the making of the film, and besides her looking as fantastically beautiful as ever, it was great to see her level of dedication to it. Interviews with the director also show how serious she was in making the best and most accurate film possible. Good stuff, but nothing that will really give us more value for our money.
Graphics and Sound:
Visually Zero does not disappoint, and since this isn’t a film drowning in CGI or fantastical special effects, the shaky cam and more rugged look keep this from being something that will make colors and contrast pop to the eye. The final infiltration scene is very grainy and dark by nature, thus even then it would be hard to significantly differentiate between HD and standard presentations. The film looks well enough for an HD showing, and that really is enough because it is not necessary for it to do more. Could it have been a bit brighter and colorful? Yes, but it’s slight, and having colors more plain works with the realism of the events taking place. Making this too pretty may have run the risk of taking us out of the experience. Next, being a story based on true war events, the more intense scenes of gunfire do not hold the exaggerated hammer-like clatter of Hollywood action films, but instead have the very realistic and duller pops of actual real life gunfire and explosions.There isn’t much of a musical soundtrack to speak of, but at least all the dialogue is perfectly audible on its own.
Zero is most definitely worth your time. It is gripping, involving, intense, realistic, and fast paced. There is no need to feel intimidated by its lengthy running time, because it makes sure to use every minute to the fullest and does nothing to waste your time in between its more intense moments. Perfectly cast, beautifully acted, and professionally directed, Zero does enough well to appeal to any American, and even those who aren’t and did not have their own land threatened by such terrorist acts. Some may want a more dramatic or emotional showing, but what the film angle intends with such material makes it something that won’t be lost on people so quickly as, let’s say, ‘World Trade Center.’ I’d say 3.5 Navy Seals out of 4.