Zero Dark Thirty is a different kind of action movie, a different kind of drama. It has the realism of a documentary and intimacy of cinéma vérité, a form of documentary that draws directly from life.
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow and written by Mark Boal — the team behind the Iraqi war drama, The Hurt Locker —Zero Dark Thirty’s action trades in unglamorized, hyper-realism. Its drama grips with chock-hold force.
The story’s events, set over a period of 10 years, are compressed into a suspenseful account of the CIA’s manhunt for Osama bin Laden. In an almost clinical way, Zero Dark Thirty proceeds with a combination of cool dispassion and heated urgency. The movie’s tone recalls PBS’ serious, detail-rich Frontline documentaries.
Jessica Chastain, playing an unwavering CIA operative named Maya, stands at the heart of the chase for bin Laden. While the CIA’s target hides from his pursuers in webs of the shadows, the film revolves around this gifted, won’t-take-no-for-an-answer young woman. Chastain’s dynamic, award-worthy performance runs from quiet moments of grief to mighty shouts of defiance.
Setting the context, an audio montage of cellphone conversations from the World Trade Center’s twin towers serves as a quick, effective reminder of the events of Sept. 11, 2001.
Skipping to two years later, Chastain is new on the job at a CIA black site, one of the secret locations where the agency conducts interrogations that may yield info about the locations and activities of terrorists.
As depicted in Zero Dark Thirty, the interrogation clearly is torture. It’s all business to Jason Clarke’s Dan, an old hand at this kind of questioning. He turns to the noticeably disturbed novice Maya and says, not quite apologetically, “It’s not always this intense.”
Later, a visitor from Washington, D.C., questions Maya’s abilities.
“Don’t you think she’s a little young for the hard stuff?” he asks the CIA station chief in Islamabad. On the contrary, Joseph Bradley (Kyle Chandler) says, she’s a killer.
Chastain’s fierce Maya gets quickly up to speed. She, too, will participate in brutal, humiliating interrogations. She pushes her superiors, who appear to be working at cross-purposes from her, as hard as she pushes herself. And the more Maya believes in her leads, the more she challenges the seemingly entrenched men above her.
As Maya drives the story forward over a period of years, the on-the-ground team she works with in Pakistan makes incremental progress. Hunting the world’s most wanted terrorist is a labor-intensive business that presents few rewards. Chastain and Maya, however, sustain amazing focus.
While Maya concentrates on bin Laden, the CIA must also work to uncover plots for more terrorist attacks. Bigelow re-creates the ongoing threats in Zero Dark Thirty with characteristically searing impact.
Like Apollo 13 or Lincoln and any movie based upon real events, Zero Dark Thirty must tell a story that everyone knows the ending of. But Bigelow and Boal, behind the scenes, and Chastain and the large cast, on screen, pull the mission off masterfully. Zero Dark Thirty is an edge-of-your-seat ride through recent history.