This is it. The wide release of Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty unofficially marks the end of Hollywood’s prestige season. Now it’s back to bland horror remakes and inert action movies until the studios cycle back around to the big tentpole flicks of the summer. However, Zero Dark Thirty, Bigelow’s interpretation of the manhunt for Osama bin Laden, is a fine film for 2012 to go out on. It’s not the best movie of the year, but it’s another fine historical procedural in the vein of Argo.
While the promotional materials for the flick emphasized the now famous raid by Seal Team Six upon bin Laden’s compound in Abottobad, Pakistan, this film mostly focuses on a young CIA agent (Jessica Chastain) as she attempts to track down the terrorist’s personal courier. We follow her from 2002—during the “enhanced interrogation” years of the Bush administration—through the murkier political quagmire of the final years of the hunt. Perhaps the most interesting thing about Zero Dark Thirty is that Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal steadfastly refuse to pass judgment on the actions of their characters.
The film opens with a veteran CIA agent (Jason Clarke) torturing a midlevel Al Queda operative. They deprive him of sleep; hang him from the ceiling; waterboard him; and even go so far as to pull off his pants, tie a dog collar around his neck, and shove him in a large crate. Chastain’s rookie is initially disturbed, but she begins to take advantage of the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques after they begin to yield results. In these early scenes, Bigelow certainly doesn’t seem to be applauding the torture of terror suspects: These scenes are graphic and disconcerting. Her camera never flinches from brutality. However, the film itself blatantly asserts that intelligence gathered through torture led to the eventual killing of bin Laden.
You can agree or disagree with the film’s message, but it’s still a remarkably bold message for a Hollywood film. Even the pro-military, Pentagon-approved Act of Valor (which I actually liked) shied away from depicting actual interrogations. And the entirety of Zero Dark Thirty is like that. There’s a sort of bluntness to it that somehow rings true. Yeah, Jessica Chastain’s plucky operative is clearly a composite of multiple people, and yes, Bigelow gets many facts wrong in her attempt to dramatize history, but I’d be surprised if this story were very far removed from what actually happened.
That’s an asset to the film and a hindrance. The sheer political incorrectness of Zero Dark Thirty gives it the vibe of Hollywood films of yesteryear like All The President’s Men or Serpico. The downside is that Zero Dark Thirty often grinds to a halt due to the sheer amount of exposition and detail crammed into its nearly three hour runtime. Few of the characters register as three dimensional; they’re defined exclusively by their jobs. They seem to float in a sea of information and statistics. Of course, that depiction may be fully accurate as well. I suppose if someone’s day job involves relentlessly searching for the most wanted man on the face of the earth, there isn’t a lot of room for anything else. However, that doesn’t always make for compelling drama.
But after years of interrogating suspects, bribing locals, and following up a variety of leads, we follow the CIA as they bring bin Laden down. In its final act, Zero Dark Thirty drastically shifts perspective away from the Byzantine world of the CIA to the more straightforward point of view of Seal Team Six. Bigelow also doesn’t shy away from showing the death of bin Laden.
In one of the most ambitious, extended set pieces of the year, the film follows the Seals, almost in real time, as they travel into Pakistan and assault the compound. Again, the movie adopts a bold, non-judgmental stance. It gets some of the facts of the assault wrong, but the film still generally manages to ring true. The final sequence of the film is extremely tense and focused. Things go wrong; a chopper crash lands. A woman is killed during a shoot out. There are a lot of screaming, crying kids; neighborhood rabble eventually begin to encroach on the team as they near their target. Kathryn Bigelow refuses to idealize the moment, but she also doesn’t take the coward’s way out by proselytizing, or worse, turning away from the ugliness of the manhunt. She leaves it to the audience to make up their own minds as to whether they endorse or disapprove of the actions of the film’s characters. Few directors seem to have that kind of faith in their audience these days.
The result is one of the better movies of 2012 and a fine companion piece to Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker. That movie also didn’t shy away from showing hard people in brutal circumstances. Zero Dark Thirty lacks the narrative focus of that one; it’s also a bit too long for its own good. But those faults aside, Zero Dark Thirty is probably the last good drama we’re going to see for a few months, so enjoy it while you can.