"Zero Dark Thirty" starts off with a black screen as you hear an audio montage of distress calls from September 11, 2001. It's somber, powerful, gut-wrenching, and it doesn't need any visual accompaniment.
By the time Osama bin Laden was taken down, much of America had forgotten it was even a thing. We gripe as we tote tiny bottles of toiletries and take off our shoes at the airport, but the opening sequence takes us all back to that autumn morning.
The film, directed by Kathryn Bigelow, who won the 2009 Academy Award for Best Director, presents a dramatized account of the events leading up to the death of bin Laden on May 1, 2011. The title is a military term for the middle of the night, though it also references the start time (12:30 AM) of the Navy SEAL mission.
The movie jumps ahead to a CIA "black site" in 2003, where Dan (Jason Clarke) uses "enhanced interrogation techniques" on Ammar (Reda Kateb) to get information on the whereabouts of the Saudi Group. Maya (Jessica Chastain) is a young woman who was recruited by the CIA straight out of high school, and even though she's the most junior agent, she isn't afraid to speak plainly — and loudly, if necessary.
What follows is a series of notable events, disappointing failures and potential breaks as they try to find bin Laden's most trusted courier. The narrative is expertly crafted by journalist-turned-screenwriter Mark Boal; it's unnerving how close we sometimes came to completely missing the opportunity.
Chastain impresses in her portrayal of the single-minded Maya. She eschews niceties and doesn't socialize much with colleagues because she's laser-focused on tracking down bin Laden. In one scene, you can see the veins in her neck when she roars at the CIA station chief Joseph Bradley (Kyle Chandler), threatening to report him for ineptitude if he won't give her a surveillance team. When then-CIA director Leon Panetta (James Gandolfini) asks who she is, she responds with, "I'm the motherf***** that found [the compound]." Given Chastain's Academy Award nomination for Best Actress yesterday morning, the Academy apparently agrees that she did a bang-up job.
Essentially, "Zero Dark Thirty" boils down to two hours of Maya interrogating detainees and 30 minutes of action when the SEALs storm the stronghold in Abbottabad, Pakistan. As we saw in "Hurt Locker," Bigelow knows how to build suspense and keep viewers on the edge of their seats. After two hours of build-up, the audience is interested in seeing the "payoff" of the action scenes, which are mostly presented in a green-and-black night-vision goggle view. Are the action sequences worth the wait? Perhaps, but we already know how the story ends. Rather than being a destination, the action merely puts a tidy bow on the 10-year experience of the film. (As a side note, Bigelow had originally intended this to be an action movie, but when they took down bin Laden, she had to work to retool the movie — after filming had already begun.)
What I found to be most interesting was that the captives, who are Muslim men, were interrogated solely by Maya. She was backed by some muscle, but she was the one grilling the subjects. Perhaps it was an interrogation technique designed to throw off the prisoners, and perhaps it was creative license. I'm all about girl power, but I was still surprised to learn that a female was behind the takedown of bin Laden. If we're surprised by this in North America, I would've loved to have seen the looks on the detainees' faces.
To tout its legitimacy, "Zero Dark Thirty" indicates that the depicted events are based on first-person accounts. This is rebuked by a memo from Acting CIA Director Michael Morell, who says, "It would not be practical for me to walk through all the fiction in the film." I'll just call it a "dramatized account" and leave it at that.
The suspense and unfolding events of "Zero Dark Thirty" draw you in, until you realize that you're holding your breath and wondering if they'll make it — and you have to remind yourself that you already know the ending. This isn't an action movie, but it's not meant to be. Come for the suspense, and stay for Chastain's performance.
"Zero Dark Thirty" is rated R and has a running time of 2 hours and 37 minutes. It is showing in 2-D. The movie had a limited release on December 18, 2012, so it could be eligible for the upcoming Academy Awards, but the nationwide release date is January 11, 2013.
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