Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Writer: Mark Boal
Stars: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, and Jennifer Ehle
We begin with panicked audio calls from victims in the World Trade Center Towers to 9-1-1 dispatchers before the towers fall. While talking some come to the realization they are not going to live as the dispatchers try to convince them they will and help is on the way.
Cut to an interrogation in progress at a US facility in Pakistan. Dan (Jason Clarke), a CIA agent, is questioning Ammar (Reda Kateb) in a bare warehouse with masked guards all around. Dan and the guards exit the room to give Ammar a reprieve. Outside, Maya (Jessica Chastain) takes off her mask and speaks with Dan. Shortly after they all enter again, this time Maya chooses not to wear her mask.
Months later Ammar gives a name: Abu Ahmed.
Abu Ahmed becomes Maya’s single-minded focus in her quest to find Osama bin Laden. Through different prisoners, intel, and reconnaissance she slowly–over the course of years–zeroes onto his location and correctly assumes he is the courier for bin Laden. Now working at C.I.A. Headquarter in Langley, VA, Maya presents her case for bin Laden living in Ahmed’s compound. Convinced, her immediate supervisors work first on C.I.A. Director Panetta and then members of President Obama’s staff to get the go ahead to get bin Laden. Though initially reluctant, after months a decision is made and action taken.
In choosing to present the material with a clinical eye, Director Kathryn Bigelow, creates a “strangely passionless film.”1 While the film is tense, there is a disconnect with the characters. The action set pieces, though, are well constructed. The scene of the agents trying and eventually succeeding in triangulating Ahmed’s location while on a mobile phone could not have been any better. Bigelow’s decision to film the Seal assault on the compound in real-time was masterful. And as good as she is with action, Bigelow also delivered powerful visual moments. The scene of the triumphant Seals back at camp abandoning bin Laden corpse in a body bag on a gurney while they unload the captured computers is arresting and foreshadowing; once the most hunted man on the planet, now forgotten for the task at hand. Much like our reaction to the news of his killing; an immediate feeling of satisfaction, then the realization we must continue with the task at hand–we are still fighting.
The story–spanning a decade–never feels slow or fat. But this is more owing to the fact you know in the end Maya will succeed. It’s the promise of the final raid on the compound that keeps you interested in the intricacies of how they got to that point of the story. Ask yourself if the US had not found bin Laden and this film was made per the original concept of the governments failed effort, would you have sat through the film?
Jessica Chastain gives a good performance with a, truthfully, limited role. If not for her last scene of finally giving into the relief of succeeding in finding & killing bin Laden, Maya at the beginning of the film is the same person as at the end. The same comment can be made for all the main characters. Though all the performances are good, the lack of real character arcs prevent them from being truly great.
Zero Dark Thirty is a well made film…But will it stand the test of time?
Grade = B+
1. Quote is from Mark, a commentor from Centrefolds & Empty Screens review of Zero Dark Thirty here.