If “Zero Dark Thirty” were merely an action thriller, it would be remarkable in that even though the whole world knows the deadly outcome, it's still incredibly suspenseful. But as director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal's gripping, journalistic narrative about the long, grueling hunt for 9/11 architect Osama bin Laden is so much more than a macho exercise in revenge mythology, it's all the more significant.
With its astute blending of shoe-leather journalism, potboiler politics, police procedural, personal psychodrama and high-octane action thriller, it's one of the most riveting, debate provoking and entertainingly ripped-from-the-headlines movies to come along since “All the President's Men.”
“Zero Dark Thirty” (military jargon for half-past midnight, the launch time of the SEAL Team Six raid) is framed by two stark scenarios — opening with an horrific aural evocation of Sept. 11, 2001, (static radio chatter and panicked cries of help from the stricken Twin Towers) and ending with the calculated, clinical SEAL strike on bin Laden's austere compound in Abbottabad.
In between, Boal's exhaustive reporting loads the story with arcane ins and outs of counterterrorist technique, as well as political infighting, internal CIA debates and numerous dead ends and setbacks encountered along the way. There are dispiriting tragedies (the 2008 bombing of the Marriott Islamabad in Pakistan and the 2009 suicide attack on Afghanistan's Camp Chapman that killed seven CIA operatives).
There are nifty bits of techno wizardry (like triangulating a cellphone signal amid the teeming populace of urban Pakistan to track down a bin Laden courier). And there are the harrowing but nonjudgmental depictions of “enhanced interrogation” (read: torture) by American ops — personified most chillingly by Jason Clarke as brainy CIA jock Dan — that have already fired up harsh partisan debate.
Bigelow is perfectly adept at juggling the story's mind-boggling detail with its shadowy moral ambiguity and keeping the narrative hurtling forward. And giving human dimension to the relentless hunt is chameleon actress Jessica Chastain, who plays CIA analyst Maya with a single-minded ferocity that should cause even the most hardened al-Qaida goon to quake in his tunic.
Maya is a composite figure based on a real-life CIA operative who Boal encountered in his research. It's one of the film's more daring conceits to cast her as the single most dogged pursuer in the decade-long hunt for bin Laden.
In his second outing with Bigelow (after their Oscar winning work on “The Hurt Locker”) Boal deftly evokes inspiration from The New Journalism of the 1960s and '70s, working in the tradition of such so-called “nonfiction novels” as Truman Capote's “In Cold Blood” and Tom Wolfe's “The Right Stuff” to create a form of cinematic storytelling he calls “the reported film.”
Even given the necessary composites, distortions, dramatizations and broad literary license taken, Bigelow and Boal's fictionalized version of the post-9/11 manhunt wields uncommon power to cast complex and abstract historical events into a defining narrative. For good or ill, this is likely the version of events most people will equate with fact.
Both epic-scaled and intimate, “Zero Dark Thirty” is a masterly accumulation of journalistic detail and fictional urgency that packs a potent one-two punch — it draws us in with entertaining urgency and leaves us struggling with the flawed concept of “closure” and the questionable place of ruthlessness in service of our humanity.
— Dennis King
‘Zero Dark Thirty'
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Ehle. (For strong violence including brutal, disturbing images, and for language)