Running a dense two hours thirty, before credits, “Zero Dark Thirty” reunites director Kathryn Bigelow with reporter-turned-scenarist Mark Boal in re-creating the hunt for Osama bin Laden, rejecting nearly every cliche one might expect from a Hollywood treatment of the subject. Far more ambitious than “The Hurt Locker,” yet nowhere near so tripwire-tense, this procedure-driven, decade-spanning docudrama nevertheless rivets for most of its running time by focusing on how one female CIA agent with a far-out hunch was instrumental in bringing down America’s most wanted fugitive. Spinning the pic as a thriller, Sony could beat the 9/11-movie curse when the Dec. 19 limited release goes wide in January.
Opportunely held for release until after the presidential election had played out, “Zero Dark Thirty” arrives shrouded in nearly as much mystery as bin Laden’s whereabouts before news broke that a team of Navy Seals had successfully terminated his life on May 2, 2011. The title, military-speak for half-past midnight, refers to the Al Qaeda leader’s time of death, theoretically promising a flashy first-hand account of the raid itself. But Bigelow and Boal reduce the spectacular assault on bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, to the last half-hour in order to dedicate the rest of the film to the lesser-known backstory.
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By forcing partisan politics into the wings (President George W. Bush goes entirely unseen, while auds’ only glimpse of President Obama is during a 2008 campaign interview), the filmmakers effectively give gender politics the whole stage: The pic presents the highest-profile U.S. military success in recent memory as the work of a single woman, “Maya” (Jessica Chastain), inspired by a real CIA analyst Boal discovered during his research, and presented here as the only government official convinced that bin Laden wasn’t “hiding in some cave” (Bush’s words), but somewhere she could find him.
Stepping up from a year busy with supporting roles, Chastain may at first seem an unusual choice for the lead. But she shows she has the chops to embody the pic’s iron-nerved protag, holding her own in the testosterone-thick world of CIA black sites and top-level Washington boardrooms. She first appears as witness to a military interrogation in which a colleague resorts to extreme measures to force information from an Al Qaeda money handler (Reda Kateb).
Compared with her wild-eyed cowboy of a colleague, Dan (Jason Clarke), Maya’s body language suggests a little girl, clearly uncomfortable with the waterboarding and sexual humiliation that were common practice in the morally hazy rendition era. When Dan leaves the room for a moment, the desperate prisoner tries to appeal to her humanity. She wavers for only a moment before firing back, “You can help yourself by being truthful.”
Unlike, for instance, Jodie Foster as Clarice Starling in “The Silence of the Lambs,” Chastain plays Maya as fragile on the outside, Kevlar-tough beneath the skin. After narrowly surviving one terrorist attack and seeing another promising lead literally blow up in a female colleague’s face, Maya grits her teeth and swears, “I’m gonna smoke everybody involved in this op, and then I’m going to kill bin Laden.”
Like Bigelow herself, Maya realizes that actions — or action movies, in the director’s case — are the surest way to combat a tradition in which society doesn’t believe women to be capable of getting the job done, and “Zero Dark Thirty” follows the character through every significant step along her 10-year journey to hold bin Laden accountable for 9/11. The film opens with audio of a terrified victim of the World Trade Center attack playing over a black screen and uses the emotional power that clip dredges up to fuel everything that follows.
The result is neither particularly entertaining nor especially artful, as the filmmakers take a lean, “All the President’s Men”-style approach to dramatizing an investigation that took nearly a decade to bear fruit. But Boal has clearly constructed this as a more journalistic alternative to a generic gung-ho approach. The script’s blood runs thick with observational detail and military jargon, skipping forward years at a time between scenes to focus on one of two types of incident.
The first concerns the slow but steady progress in Maya’s investigation, which hinges on her conviction that any clues they can discover about bin Laden’s courier will eventually lead them back to UBL (the military acronym for bin Laden) himself. The second type involves an ongoing series of terrorist attacks that continue to claim lives as long as bin Laden goes free (never mind that they will not stop once he’s dead). Bigelow keeps her audience on its toes by alternating between the two, allowing virtually no room for subplots or superfluous character baggage beyond what’s needed for the task at hand.
With its handheld camerawork, naturalistic lighting and dialogue-drowning sound design (especially heavy on ambient helicopters), the film reflects the latest fashion in cinematic realism, compromised only slightly by the bare-minimum mood setting from Alexandre Desplat’s Middle East-inflected score. Chastain’s presence reminds us we’re watching a movie, and yet, this slight degree of self-consciousness serves to reinforce the point that it’s a woman pushing the process forward.
Maya may not be made of the same stuff as her male colleagues, but that’s essential to the operation’s success. While those around her equivocate and refuse to take action, she sticks to her guns and keeps track, in dry-erase marker, of the bureaucratic delays since they’ve located bin Laden.
Finally, when the off-camera Obama gives her mission the green light, Maya stares down a pair of cocky Navy Seals (Chris Pratt and Joel Edgerton) and tells them in no uncertain terms that she has no patience for their macho B.S. Only then does Bigelow offer auds what they paid to see: a re-construction of the raid on bin Laden’s compound. Virtuoso as the sequence is to behold, it lacks both the detail of Matt Bissonnette’s bestselling insider memoir “No Easy Day” and the visceral immediacy of this year’s earlier Seals-supported indie, “Act of Valor,” as well as the satisfaction of seeing the dead bin Laden’s face (also withheld by the U.S. goverment).
Dramatically speaking, the raid feels almost anti-climactic — an epilogue to a personal crusade that ends the moment Maya is taken seriously. Still, considering how seldom female storytellers have been given a chance to operate on this scale, it’s fair to let Bigelow overturn narrative expectations to some degree. The ultra-professional result may be easier to respect than enjoy, but there’s no denying its power, both as a credible reimagining of what went down and a welcome example of distaff resolve prevailing in an arena traditionally dominated by men.