Zero Dark Thirty a masterful thriller
Zero Dark Thirty
Four stars (out of four)
Take a good look at the scene in Zero Dark Thirty where Jessica Chastain’s Maya stands watching the all-male Navy SEALS fly off to take down Osama bin Laden.
It’s just about the only moment in this incredible film that could be called conventional: the anxious woman left behind as the men go off to be heroes, with Alexandre Desplat’s magnificently tense score rising along with the dust of their stealth Black Hawk helicopters.
We already know that Maya is no mere stereotype, in this movie by Kathryn Bigelow — nominated for five Academy Awards — that combines dramatic flair with documentary realism and that turns a spy-trade procedural into the most white-knuckle of thrillers.
Maya is the real hero of Zero Dark Thirty, the CIA targeter (likely a composite of several) whose diligence and persistence led to the discovery and 2011 killing of 9/11 terror mastermind bin Laden, the world’s most wanted man.
But it’s one of the many distinctions of this film that afterwards you question what “hero” really means.
Chastain makes Maya as vivid as a bloodshot eye. Her porcelain skin, delicate features and feminine attire belie the steel within. She’s had to fight sexism, doubt and red tape throughout her career, but she has proven herself in situations that would make many men flinch.
This includes the torture scene at the film’s outset, following a mercifully brief prologue over a darkened screen where the voices of doomed World Trade Center victims are heard in cellphone calls on Sept. 11, 2001.
It’s set in a filthy room in a CIA “black site.” Maya impassively watches, her face hidden by a ski mask, as Dan (Jason Clarke), the spy agency’s “man in Islamabad,” brutally attempts to pry information about bin Laden and his al-Qaida operation from captured terror suspect Ammar (Reda Kateb).
Beatings, humiliation, waterboarding and finally confinement are used against Ammar, who refuses to give up his secrets.
The frustration is palpable on the faces of Dan and Maya, and similar situations early in the film confirm the futility of what the CIA euphemistically calls “enhanced interrogation.”
This is no small point. Anyone who calls Zero Dark Thirty pro-torture is not only wrong, but clearly not paying attention. The secrets that lead to the successful location of bin Laden come not from brute force, but from guile, solid detective work and a couple of lucky breaks. The film makes all of this clear but it also doesn’t spoon-feed the viewer. Intelligent engagement is required.
Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal lay it all out as carefully as they did the bomb-disposal techniques in The Hurt Locker, their previous collaboration that won the Oscar for Best Picture in 2010 and also Best Director for Bigelow and Best Original Screenplay for Boal.
Maya is wisely the focus of a serpentine narrative that uncoils between the Middle East, Washington, D.C., and Langley, Va.
The red-haired fury has to push through obstacles posed by a dismissive U.S. Embassy station chief in Pakistan (Kyle Chandler), by a hard-to-convince boss at the CIA’s Virginia HQ (Mark Strong) and by the once-burned, twice-shy National Security Advisor (Stephen Dillane).
Fortunately, Maya finds allies in the CIA director (James Gandolfini), who is impressed by her intelligence, intensity and brutally frank talk, and later also with the sardonic Navy SEALS who are tasked with bringing the fire directly to bin Laden.
As Zero Dark Thirty shifts into thriller mode for its final act, with cinematographer Greig Fraser switching between standard and night-vision views, it seems like the culmination of a carefully laid plan rather than an abrupt shift in tone.
That’s because it is. As she has throughout, Bigelow dispenses with conventional suspense-building tricks (this film is so unlike the lesser Argo in that regard) and instead shows a highly credible version of what very likely happened on that fateful May evening in bin Laden’s fortress compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
There’s no emphasis on any single Navy SEAL, or even on bin Laden, who is referred to simply as “the third-floor guy” in the movie moment normally reserved for high-five antics. There are bullets, blood and violence, but you’ll see more of all of that in Gangster Squad, one of the other movies opening in the last week.
Just as with the torture that began the movie, Bigelow and Boal seek not to express an opinion, to push a political line or to exaggerate already momentous events.
They simply want to serve history by showing reality, or what passes for it in the shadowy and contradictory worlds of spy “tradecraft” and covert manoeuvres (the film’s title is a military time reference).
They grandly succeed, and they also invest Maya with an authenticity not often accorded to dramatic figures. Our final view of her is a silent one, but the truth of what she’s seen and done is all in her eyes.
Peter Howell is a syndicated Toronto Star movie critic.