Great Acting, Directing In ‘Zero Dark Thirty’


Zero Dark Thirty is an exciting depiction of the eventually successful search for Osama bin Laden. Hiding in Pakistan (one of our allies of dubious loyalty), he had been able to avoid detection by limiting contacts with al-Qaeda through a single courier. An extremely driven CIA operative, Maya (Jessica Chastain) begins to search for the courier as a way of eventually finding the extraordinarily elusive bin Laden. It is a tough movie; director Kathryn Bigelow lets us see it and judge for ourselves whether it should have happened.

A large part of the early section of this long movie focuses on the internal politics within the CIA as different factions focus on a wide spectrum of elements that might lead to crushing al-Qaeda. At first, Maya is an obviously softhearted neophyte as she watches veteran Dan (Jason Clarke) using extreme methods of interrogation to get information. Later, she is ferocious in her pursuit of Abu Ahmed, the courier, which becomes a dead end when she learns that he is deceased. Shortly thereafter, her colleague and reasonably-close-to-being-a-friend Jessica (Jennifer Ehle) is killed when a plan to recruit a high-level mole inside the terrorist organization leads to betrayal and death. After an attempt on her life, Maya is assigned to Washington, D.C., where she learns that the messenger was one of eight brothers, and it might have been another brother who was killed.

Dan gets the phone number of the man’s family by bribing (with a Maserati) a key Kuwaiti official, and Maya and an increasingly large team discover that key calls are being made with excellent trade craft from a couple of neighboring cities. Through a lot of work, they find the courier and trace him first to Rawalpindi and then to a large compound in Abbottabad, a suburban Pakastani town. Eventually, Seal Team Six is sent in, and they kill bin Laden and bring his body back for Maya to identify.

Bigelow keeps the tension tight throughout. This is one of those very long movies where you feel you can’t leave for a moment. The end sequence, depicting the Seals going through the large house in the compound, is very taut. We know what happened there, at least in the overall picture, but we still wind up on the edge of our seats.

Chastain is excellent, a perfect focal point. A woman, one of relatively few in a sea of men, she winds up surviving and leading because of her toughness. When the head of the CIA asks, almost scornfully, who she is, she replies, “I’m the mother$#&% who found bin Laden.” The rest of the cast is also strong. Most interesting is that when the skulking and planning are being done, as opposed to the combat, the women were the ones who took the major leads.

The film has become controversial. There were reports that it was originally planned as a testament to President Barack Obama and set to come out just before the election. Eventually, it was released after the election, and Obama is seen only briefly on a television screen.

More controversially, the people behind the raid provided a lot of inside information to Bigelow and Mark Boal, the screenwriter. Much of that attention to detail comes out in the movie, but it also raises questions because of the film’s focus on waterboarding in early scenes. The CIA has denied using those techniques, and the filmmakers — after stressing their attention to accurate detail — have said, “Well, this is not a documentary.”

That is too often a real problem in this kind of movie. If you use a documentary style, people assume you are giving them the facts. Another new movie, Promised Land, about hydraulic fracking to get oil, was supposed to start off claiming to be based on a real case. That had to be changed when a court decision decided that the whole case was essentially fraudulent. And, of course, Django Unchained, while a fun film, had only a tenuous connection with history.

But Zero Dark Thirty does connect. It is a strong film, moving quickly between office spaces where Americans planned their maneuvers to the streets of the Middle East. The final sequence, focusing on the raid, is as tight as could ever be done. This is a really good movie, one of the best we have seen all year. It has been nominated for a lot of awards and already has won a few. It provides a good pseudo-historical view of a long campaign to destroy an American enemy. See it.