For some filmmakers, 160 minutes is barely enough time to tell a story that covers the course of a week. Director Kathryn Bigelow, on the other hand, is able to utilize that same running time to masterfully depict the tireless ten-year manhunt for the maestro behind 9/11, [Spoiler Alert! We got him].
It should be mentioned before going to see this film that you must realize and respect it for what it is, which is to say not an action thriller or revenge narrative, but rather a bureaucratic procedural. We experience the film through the concentrated and calculating eyes of Maya (Jessica Chastain), a CIA operative assigned the grueling task of tracking down Osama bin Laden using any means necessary—yes, including psychological, physical and other forms of torture.
Much like last year’s Django Unchained and its portrayal of slavery in the States, Bigelow uses Zero Dark Thirty to address America’s dark past involving “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques.” This element of the film is on full display within minutes of the film’s opening. As brutal as it is, Bigelow is not the type to shoot violent scenes for the sake of violence, every inhumane depiction serves its purpose—and indeed, Zero’s unremitting introduction sets the tone for the rest of the film.
The audience experiences the events of the film in vignettes: the capture of Abu Faraj (bin Laden’s courier) in 2005, the bombing of the Islamabad Marriot in 2009, and the mission to execute bin Laden in 2011. This device of storytelling allows us to realize that even when we tried to move past the events of September 11th, someone, somewhere was constantly pursuing the culprits behind the attacks. The character of Maya is instrumental to the success of the mission, but even more so, the true success of the film…and that has to do largely with the fact she’s not a “Character.” Chastain’s Maya is real, obsessive and unrelenting, and Mark Boal’s script supports these attributes. Maya’s family is never mentioned, the couple of friends she has are kept at arm’s length and there’s no word of a personal life—mainly because she doesn’t have one, her job is her life, a patriot in the most isolated sense. Moreover, the shining achievement of the film is undoubtedly its final 30 minutes—wherein we follow Seal Team 6, in near real time, and their assault on bin Laden’s Abbotabad compound, which was directed with precision and accuracy to detail. After justice has been dispatched and the body bagged, Maya boards a C-130 and is confronted by the most harrowing of questions: where she’d like to go next. She sits in silence, a silence that resonates out to the audience and the country at large. Bigelow asks the big question: Where do we go from here?
Looking back on 2012, there was only a handful of films truly worthy of all the pomp and circumstance they received; Zero Dark Thirty was one of them…and come February 24 its going to have the awards to prove it.