As I exited the theater after watching Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, I had a sinking feeling that had nothing to do with the film’s quality and everything to do with the real-life events it recounted. I thought to myself, “The United States not only killed the most wanted man in history, they also made a fucking brilliant film about it. Respect! What has my country done lately? Nothing.” This realization was quite depressing because of the truth in it. Zero Dark Thirty’s retelling of the painstaking efforts of the CIA to find Osama Bin Laden’s location followed by the US Navy SEAL’s assault on his Abbottabad fortress makes for a compulsively watchable film because of its veracity.
Unlike Ben Affleck’s equally compelling Argo which chose to take its story in a different direction and abandon fact for entertainment, Bigelow lends an incredible sense of verisimilitude to her story by sticking with the truth. This is evident in the film’s opening line itself. Where Argo declares itself to be “based on true events,” ZDT openly claims itself to be “based on first-hand accounts of actual events.” And although the significance of torture as depicted in the film has been argued, nobody has openly denied that much of what is portrayed in the film actually took place which isn’t the case with Argo. I feel both are completely valid approaches thoroughly suited to their respective tales. But for material of this magnitude, the approach adopted by Bigelow is perfect, and the best example of this comes during the final mission which lasts for about 30 to 45 minutes of running time.
To begin with, there is no shaky cam, fast cuts, or speedy handheld camera movements; there are absolutely no stylistic flourishes. And there isn’t a lot of background music; what you hear is what the SEALs hear: a lot of ambient noise and crystal clear radio chatter. (Alexandre Desplat is the music director for the aforementioned films, and his range and understanding of the nuances of background music is evident in both. He is fast becoming my favorite composer.) Not a single aspect of this sequence is played for tension or thrills. What we witness is one of the finest military units in the world going about their business with chilling tactical precision. There is something muted and realistic in this treatment that rivets your attention.
And this immaculate attention to detail is also evident in the film’s depiction of the CIA’s modus operandi. While on this topic, it would be wise to address the elephant in the room and have my say on the film’s depiction of the CIA’s torture methods, which they have said never provided them with worthy information. My personal take is that I don’t have a problem with these torture scenes. These are terrorists who wouldn’t blink an eye before killing innocent civilians in the name of their Jihad. I don’t mind any amount of torture on them if it rids the world of more men like Osama Bin Laden. There’s a scene in the film with President Obama denying claims of torture (from a real newscast), but even if what is shown in the film exactly transpired in the CIA cells, I have zero problems with it.
Having said that, it would be an insult to the director and writer to taint the film solely based on these accusations. In fact, the torture scenes depicted in the film never really result in a lot of useful information. It is the more traditional and modern methods that prove to be successful, like for instance Maya’s trip to a CIA black site in Poland with a photo of a Bin Laden courier in hand. Even the sequence of steps that leads to the discovery of Bin Laden’s hiding place is straightforward: Bribing a source reveals a phone number which is tapped; the courier makes phone calls from various cell towers never staying near one tower for more than a couple of minutes; the US ground forces under Maya’s orders stake out all public places until they luck out and he makes a call from near their location to reveal himself. These scenes display the immense care taken by the creators to present the versatility of American Intelligence which makes such accusations all the more meaningless.
With The Hurt Locker and this film, it almost feels like Kathryn Bigelow is showing a huge middle finger to the Hollywood bureaucracy. While all her previous films have played around with the action format which is traditionally a male dominated genre, both these films firmly put her on the map as one of the best directors of such films. And though Maya is supposedly based on a real person, we can surmise that she is most probably an amalgam of a number of hardworking individuals. The fact that Bigelow went for a heroine instead of a hero which is what you would expect in a thriller like this is also a significant decision. Most importantly, as evidenced above, she has demonstrated an unparalleled understanding of the material in her treatment, for which she deserves the Oscar nomination she was robbed off.
At the film’s center is Jessica Chastain’s Maya. At the end of 2011, I felt she was fast becoming my favorite Hollywood actress, and that hasn’t changed after watching this film. Although this isn’t as showy or intensive as some of her roles from last year, it is no less attention-worthy. One thing I’ve realized from all her performances so far is that she’s a chameleon of an actress. In the short time she’s been around, she has become a bonafide star, and yet she seems to sink into each of her roles; so much so that after a certain point in the film, you only see Maya. Her emotive abilities suit her well in some of the more intense scenes such as when she explodes in the face of the CIA Station Chief in Islamabad. But this is also a role which requires a lot of subtlety. Because of her position and the task at hand, Maya cannot express her emotions publicly, and Chastain relies on subtle cues to make us feel exactly what she is feeling. And the lingering shot of her face that serves as the film’s closing is perfect; you can sense that the hunt for Bin Laden has drained her completely. The rest of the cast is superlative - Gandolfini, Strong, Chandler, Ehle, Clarke to name a few. All of them sink into their roles and make their presence invisible which is exactly what is required.
Finally, it has to be mentioned that Zero Dark Thirty is also a film that warrants multiple viewings. There is just so much going on that it is difficult to comprehend in its entirety on one viewing alone. One gets the feeling that you will come away with a better opinion of the film on second or third viewings, and that is something which cannot be said of many other 2012 releases.
- Banner image used falls under fair use and taken from Flickr