An all-American revenge movie. A typical Hollywood style thriller. A video game. A movie that gleefully employs torture. These are the words I had in mind before watching Kathryn Bigelow's decade-spinning docudrama on the hunt for Osama bin Laden. But, her new movie "Zero Dark Thirty" is a thriller which rejects nearly every cliche one might expect from a Hollywood treatment of the subject. Though not close to the trip-wire tense of "The Hurt Locker" (Bigelow's previous venture), it is nonetheless an engrossing character study.
Zero Dark Thirty is not full of surprises and twists. You know how it's gonna end: with the bullet-ridden body of Bin Laden. Whereas the suspense comes from the events leading to that moment. The movie depicts a nine-year period, from the early days of the war in Afghanistan to the midnight assault in a house in Abbottabad from which the movie takes its name. It opens in an haunting fashion, with a blank screen and frantic phone calls from people trapped in the World Trade Center. Then, we are taken to a CIA camp where an AL-Qaeda operative is being tortured. Dan (Jason Clarke), the CIA agent has clearly been at this for a stretch, with a Arabic script tattooed along his forearm. Along with him we see Maya (Jessica Chastain), who looks like a girl in a smart black pantsuit and is clearly uncomfortable with the water-boarding and sexual humiliation that were common practice in the morally fuzzy rendition era.
Later, Maya takes over Dan's role and she even proves capable of intimidating her boss, Special Agent Joseph Bradley (Kyle Chandler). After attacks all over Europe and many false leads, she links up a courier to the Al Qaeda leader and a compound in Pakistan. No one else believes her and it takes a lots of days to convince the government bureaucracy to buy in and eventually a raid is approved on the home in Pakistan. The last 35 minutes of the movie re-enacts the dead-of-night mission from the SEALs' point of view with heart-stopping efficiency.
The movie has generated a heated debate on the intentions of director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal regarding the scenes of torture. All of us might find the interrogation sequences difficult to watch, which is as it should be. They are not judging anything here, but just showing a process and leaving the rest up to us. The early scenes of torture somehow confronts Maya and ourselves equally. At first, we see her cringe at the actions of Dan, then she makes an inner decision and gets back to the work at hand, which for her isn’t about torture but everything that comes after.
After these Bigelow and Boal slowly turn our attention from the den of horrors to a more routine landscape of CIA. They follow various leads, bribe a Saudi prince with a Lamborghini,and later a tip about Al-Qaeda courier. The script by Mark Boal takes the government's official account of the hunt and enhances it with the off-the-record details provided by many sources. The script trusts us to process all the information making us becoming part of the team as we watch, sharp-eyed, for the snippet that could become a breakthrough. The characters identifications are based upon the real-life people, but their names are changed. James Gandolfini portrays the CIA director, but he is never mentioned by name. The main character Maya is a semi-fictionalized parallel for a counterpart.
|Mark Boal and Bigelow|
Jessica Chastain gives a sensational performance as Maya. Chastain looks pale and slight of stature with a strawberry blond hair, but she holds the screen with a feral intensity, an obsessive's self-possession. Maya is a rare on-screen character. She is a sturdy, powerful female character with the strength and presence to dominate in a traditional thriller genre, which mostly belongs to male. After Maya's accomplishment of her decade-long mission, Chastain finally allows emotion to come flooding in, and, director Bigelow leaves the meaning of it to us: Is it a relief for the vengeance she has served? Or state of desperation at how little has actually changed?
The running time clocks at 156 minutes, but it passes in the twinkling of an eye. "Zero Dark Thirty" neither glorifies torture nor celebrates the killing of Bin Laden, it's character study at people, who go on about their job, sometimes obsessively, until they get what they want. It's for all those who craves for the thrillers to be thought-provoking.
Zero Dark Thirty - IMDb