Thursday, January 31, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty

Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Joel Edgerton, Mark Strong, Jennifer Ehle, Kyle Chandler, Chris Pratt, Edgar Ramirez, Mark Duplass, Frank Grillo, Harold Perrineau, James Gandolfini
Running Time: 157 min.
Rating: R

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)

When we first meet Jessica Chastain's Maya in Zero Dark Thirty, she's silently and nervously watching her CIA colleague Dan (Jason Clarke) interrogate a potential Al-Qaeda suspect. It's an interrogation that soon turns to torture when he tells her to fill a bucket of water. She can barely bring herself to do it and we're thinking there's no way this is the same woman the agency nicknames "killer," much less the one who eventually brings down the most dangerous man in the world. It'll be only moment of hesitancy we see because, like everyone else, we've underestimated her.

At its core this is about a woman who's beyond exceptional at her job, steadfastly refusing to take "no" for an answer. Wherever there's red tape, she walks through it. When superiors are in her way, she plows right over them. Operating with an emotionless, laser-like focus and precision, it's impossible for anyone to deter her from her main objective: Finding and killing Osama Bin Laden. In many respects she's the most patriotic, inspirational protagonist we've seen on screen in some time, but Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow (again corroborating with Hurt Locker writer Mark Boal) won't let us get all warm and fuzzy about it. In fact, she hardly even gives us a moment to come up for air.

The chain of events start on September 11, 2001 but for the film's purposes the really begin in 2003 when Maya's career-long obsession with Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda leads her to be reassigned to the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan where she witnesses and learns Dan's interrogation tactics and gets a potential lead on the whereabouts of Bin Laden's courier and right-hand man, Abu Ahmed. For all the complaints and controversy concerning the depiction of torture to gain valuable intel one of the more under-reported stories about the film is the sheer quantity of it, as the opening thirty minutes of the film is nearly all waterboarding.

The lead Maya gets isn't concrete (as few are) but it's one that stays with her and she obsesses over as she moves up the ranks in the CIA. Her biggest obstacles and bureaucratic and political as she faces off against the agency's Islamabad Station Chief Joseph Bradley (Kyle Chandler), who's more interested in adding notches to his belt by preventing domestic attacks than locating bin Laden. He'll learn that you don't stand in Maya's way. So will his boss (Mark Strong) and so will the CIA's director (James Gandolfini). Maya's greatest strength is in how by sheer force of will and determination she can eliminate those who won't fight for her cause and sympathetically convince those on the fence who she needs (like Edgar Ramirez's Special Division officer) to cooperate.

Maya lives, breathes and sleeps catching bin Laden and has little time for others who won't. When her co-worker (exceptionally played by Jennifer Ehle) asks why she doesn't have a boyfriend her response is exactly what you'd expect. She doesn't care, or she does, she sure as hell won't show it.  This isn't an actor's showcase or typically the type of role that lets a performer show off their chops, which is what makes Chastain's work that much more miraculous. The movie may be ice but somehow she isn't, despite infusing the distant Maya with all the characteristics that should make her difficult to root for under other circumstances. Or it could be that we're just not used to having our female characters written this strongly. It's the rare case where you could change the name on the script to a man's and still be able to leave the rest of the screenplay alone. And to think anyone would claim Chastain's performance isn't paramount to the film's success or somehow takes a back seat to the terror or torture sequences. She's in every scene, carrying this whole thing on her back.

This is a cold, clinical, procedural showing its only signs of a pulse in its unforgettable final scene, which is as strong a finish as you'll see in any film this year. But much like the mission itself, it feels meticulously executed, even as plans constantly change. One lead takes Maya to another lead and then to another after that until the SEAL Team arrives at Bin Laden's compound in the final, thrilling hour. Our appreciation of the steps Boal's script takes us to get there and all suspense rests entirely on the fact that we know the ending, but not necessarily everything. Will we get to see him? Will he say anything? Will we get to know who shot him? And yet these are all trivial questions in Bigelow's world, where the cold, hard truth is a far cry from the sensationalistic dramatization everyone likely expected going in.

It's also about risk. In one key scene a character talks about how it's easy measure the dangers of doing something but the risk of not acting is always trickier to figure out. It's all about weighing the options and for Maya it's her skill, confidence and even a little bit of luck that lands bin Laden on her lap. Her problem is convincing everyone there's a shot, including the members of the Team being thrown into the lion's den. The two we meet (played by Joel Edgerton and Chris Pratt) express concerns of their own and they're pretty logical ones. The last 40 minutes of the film are unbearably suspenseful and masterfully edited, almost literally bringing us in the compound to experience details we've only partially been privy to or have just wildly speculated on. Bigelow and Boal could have easily called it a day there, but they thankfully keep going, giving us a glimpse of its aftermath.

If there's a single decision that got Bigelow and Boal into the most trouble it's the disclaimer that appears before the film starts, informing us that it's "based on first-hand accounts of actual events."  If only they knew what they stepped into with that statement, however true it may be. And to be honest, I don't particularly care. This isn't a documentary and they can fudge the truth as much or as little as they want. You don't have to like it, but it's the filmmaker's right. Despite allegations, the movie doesn't automatically take a pro-torture stance by showing. And if Boal did embellish, or even if he made the whole thing up (which by all accounts he didn't), I still wouldn't have cared, just as long as the final product on screen delivers.

All the "controversy" surrounding the film feels like a convenient excuse to have political arguments that should be taking place outside the theater. Still, it's tough to deny any film generating this kind of discussion is at all a bad thing, provided that anger isn't directed at those who made it. The focus should be on how Boal's script somehow condenses a decade's worth of intelligence information into a sustainable, compelling narrative and how Bigelow was able to make an even more muscular and unrelenting film than The Hurt Locker. But Zero Dark Thirty's most controversial stance comes in an ending that's anything but celebratory. It's strangely sad and uncertain, bravely daring to ask the important question: What now?   

No comments: