“Zero Dark Thirty” proves itself to be one of the best films of 2012, and with it director Kathryn Bigelow has fully and unquestionably entered into an entirely new phase of her career as a filmmaker.
Bigelow constructs her film in a stark, straightforward manner to the point where it feels like it might as well be a documentary.
We are given a cold open with a black screen. All we hear are the sounds of 9-1-1 calls are made in the middle of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center. It is unsettling in a way that surpasses simply showing images of planes slamming into the buildings ever could be at this point, so common have those images (sadly) become. It is a stark, effective reminder of so many things, not the least of which being what set off this decade-long manhunt.
At its core, “ZDT” is about a lone woman, Maya (Jessica Chastain, who is remarkable and very much deserving of her Golden Globe win), and her singular crusade to track down Osama Bin Laden. Late in the film, someone asks her how long she’s been with the CIA. We learn she was recruited straight out of high school and her only assignment has been the hunt for Bin Laden. She has no friends. She has no discernible life beyond moving from undisclosed location to undisclosed location. She won’t even indulge in a bit of office romance. All that exists is the mission.
What is perhaps most surprising about “ZDT” is how restrained it is. This is not a bombastic bit of jingoistic flag-waving, something the film almost certainly could (or even would) have been in the hands of a lesser filmmaker. This is not a cinematic victory lap. There is certainly a sense of catharsis at play, but it is understated.
Perhaps most remarkable of Bigelow’s accomplishment here is how engaging and riveting a film she crafts despite much of the progression we already know (though that depends somewhat on how much you watch and read the news) Spoilers: Bin Laden dies at the end.
I jest, but it’s true. Like “Argo,” even though this is a story to which we know the broad strokes, it’s in the details that it becomes engaging. It flows and is detailed in a manner akin to an in-depth magazine article. It is methodical, it keeps its distance. It shows the commitment and the frustration and the danger that went into this arduous and dangerous task. The film clocks in at two hours and 37 minutes and as such is the mother of all slow burns. You feel the length, but it’s one of the few films where that is appropriate and actually enhances the story being told.
It really is of the utmost importance that one approaches “ZDT” with the correct expectations. This isn’t an action movie. It’s not a piece of agitprop filmmaking, meant to stoke passions on either the liberal or the conservative side of things. It is a measured, detached work that comes as close as we will ever get to having an up-close account of “how things happened.”
This is especially true regarding its depiction of torture. More than a few political pundits have decried Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal for their depiction of torture, a tactic that, according to most accounts in real life, did not lead to obtaining information essential to capturing Bin Laden. These pundits claim the film is “pro-torture” and shows it as vital in obtaining essential information. I’m wondering if these people actually paid attention to the film as that is most certainly not what happens.
It may be fairly clear on the effectiveness of torture, but impressively Bigelow manages to remain rather neutral on the act itself. There’s a surprising level of detachment to the act’s depiction. I remained uneasy and rather disgusted that such techniques were used by Americans, but that was baggage I already brought with me into the theater and not something foisted upon the audience by the filmmaker.
If nothing else, this is a true showcase for not only the kind of filmmaker Bigelow wants to be, but that she truly can be. Hers is a career that has been uneven at best. If you had told me years ago that the director of “Point Break” (a film I honestly love but wouldn’t count as Important Cinema) would provide a riveting bit of cinematic journalism, I might not have believed you. And yet, as “The Hurt Locker” indicated and as “ZDT” proves, Bigelow is perfectly suited to tackle hard, memorable films about tough loners in the grittiest of situations. She should be celebrated as such.
This is an important film, and not just because it was nominated for a string of Oscars. “ZDT” is unlike any film I’ve ever seen, especially one handling material of this sort. It will be thoroughly interesting to see how the film community reacts to a piece of this sort. It is proof that you can present a piece of history (and one as particularly emotionally charged as this, at least to Americans) in a manner that feels accurate and detailed and yet never allows itself to be consumed or manipulated by theatricality.