By Kayla Upadhyaya, Managing Arts Editor
Published January 14, 2013
People are talking about “Zero Dark Thirty.” They’ve been talking about the Kathryn Bigelow-directed, Mark Boal-penned spy thriller centered on the intelligence hunt for Osama bin Laden since before its release, stirring up enough controversy to cause two release date changes. The right decries it as a pro-Obama liberal propaganda piece; the left interprets it as a torture apologia and patriotic attempt to defend the War on Terror.
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If this project were in the hands of any other filmmaker, these criticisms might be more defensible. But this is the first-rate production team behind 2008’s visceral “The Hurt Locker,” and Bigelow fiercely delves into the harrowing world of post-9/11 intelligence with emotional honesty, though not always with complete truth.
The film is largely rooted in the real people and events central to the bin Laden manhunt, but it takes liberties with many of the details, as it’s ultimately a film, not a documentary.
The most important and effective liberty the story takes is with Maya (Jessica Chastain, “Take Shelter”), whose character is inspired by a female intelligence officer critical to the manhunt, but ultimately an amalgamation of fact and fiction that characterizes much of the film.
Maya is methodical, frenetic, thorough. Her intellect slices through everything she says. And it’s through her eyes that much of the narrative unravels. Though the movie boasts interesting characters (Jason Clarke plays a twisted CIA interrogator who wants out of the field) and an impressive cast of familiar faces, the only intimate character connection the script allows for is with Maya. And even with her, there’s a distance; we never immerse as deeply into her psyche as with Sergeant First Class William James in “Hurt Locker.”
“Zero Dark Thirty” certainly thrusts itself into the national debate on torture, but by filtering the story through this dogmatic woman, Bigelow also touches issues of sexism. Throughout the movie, characters in the macho spy world refer to Maya as “the girl.” She’s asked to sit at the back of a meeting with the CIA director (James Gandolfini, TV’s “The Sopranos”) about the compound believed to house bin Laden. The director blithely asks the men in the room who “the girl” is — to which Maya replies, emphatically: “I’m the motherfucker who found this place.” For being the movie’s lead, Chastain doesn’t have a ton of dialogue, but every time her mouth opens, sparks fly.
The only time the film overtly plays to the audience’s emotions is in the opening sequence — a black screen scored with horrifying sound bites from 9/11. Though emotional at times, “Zero Dark Thirty” is first and foremost a technical wonder. There’s a journalistic quality to Bigelow’s eye, and her auteuristic hand makes “Zero Dark Thirty” more absorbing than a glamorized spy flick — but it also gets her into trouble. The only editing misstep was the decision to divide the film into titled chapters, which gives it too much of the documentary feel that critics claim will persuade the audience to believe torture led to actionable intelligence, as it does in the movie.
But “Zero Dark Thirty” doesn’t say torture was necessary; it says that torture happened. Boal’s sweeping script and Bigelow’s keen direction are a formidable display of restraint. There’s nothing overtly patriotic about the film; it’s as critical of America as it is reverent of the individuals who gave their everything to the fight. Maya is nearly monstrous in her obsession, as zealous as the men she pursues. It’s these contradictions that make it possible for opposing ideologies to interpret it in such different ways.
Instead of distinguishing between bad and good, Bigelow meticulously examines the moral complexities of the War on Terror. Maya’s response to her station chief when he asks what she thinks of Pakistan applies here, and to both sides: “It’s kinda fucked up.”
Darkness seeps through “Zero Dark Thirty,” into its characters, into its politics. Maya seems to haunt her own office and home: In one particularly indelible shot, the camera moves with her as she emerges from a lightless hall.
Its title is military speak for the dead of night: 12:30 a.m., the precise time of the Navy SEAL strike in Pakistan that resulted in bin Laden’s death. If “Zero Dark Thirty” is Bigelow’s technical symphony, the strike is her fourth movement. Cinematographer Greig Fraser doesn’t frame the raid as a stylized Hollywood retelling. Using an infrared light mounted on the camera along with a night vision device attached to the lens mount, he captures the moonless Pakistani night with stark naturalism — the cameras move with the SEALs so that it’s practically a first-person viewing, keeping the stakes high even when you know what’s coming.
Fitting for a film that has everyone arguing, interpretations of the final shot differ from one viewer to the next. It’s a testament to Chastain’s power to make people feel the weight of the scene in varying degrees and ways, but it’s also a testament to the film’s ability to be many things at once.
So, keep talking. Provocation is “Zero Dark Thirty” ’s specialty.