Zero Dark Thirty is exactly what the ads say it is, a realistic account of the decade-long search for the 21st century's first global enemy number one, Osama bin Laden. Unlike its Oscar competition Argo, the facts have not been teased in the interest of greater audience involvement; the details of this story are fascinating on their own.
Director Kathryn Bigelow hit the Academy Awards jackpot a few years earlier with her The Hurt Locker, a story of an obsessed bomb disposal expert working in Iraq. Zero adopts a similar standoffish distance to its subjects, all of whom are seen only in the context of their work. There is a leading character, this time a woman, but Ms. Bigelow and her screenwriter Mark Boal purposely avoid sentimental touches. Nobody so much as makes a phone call home.
A very young C.I.A. officer called only Maya (Jessica Chastain) devotes her entire being to her job, which is serving on an intelligence team attempting to pinpoint and target high level al-Quaeda agents in Pakistan. She joins interrogator Dan (Jason Clarke) in torturing a captive for information. Through him and others they learn about a mysterious courier known as Abu Ahmed, who may be direct link to the top of the al-Quaeda pyramid. The work takes years as leads fail to pan out. The Iraq war and prison scandals put a curb on the special interrogation techniques, slowing up the work, and Maya is told that her participation in torture might lead to political problems later. Some of Maya's close associates are wiped out in an al-Quaeda trap, and new information leads her superiors to believe that the mysterious courier Maya seeks has been dead for years. But Maya bulls her way through, intimidating her immediate superiors and impressing the brass back home. She puts the hunt ahead of all other concerns, even her career. Winning the command of a small team of her own, she finds Abu Ahmed in Abbottabad. He's staying in an unusually well fortified compound in a 'nice' section of the city... and it's possible that Osama bin Laden is there as well.
Viewers interested in any facet of the hunt for bin Laden will find Zero Dark Thirty an engrossing tale. It depicts demanding intelligence work in a hostile country and concludes with a episode packed with glamorous military hardware, including a pair of secret stealth helicopters secretly built and tested at our own mysterious Area 51.
The leading character Maya seems like an invention but is real -- the unit that located bin Laden was run by a woman in her late '20s. Maya's car is shot at in an ambush at the embassy gate, and she survives the IED bombing of a hotel. If this were Argo Maya would go along on the final raid, but Zero knows better than to force the deck. In any other interpretation Maya might be a chain-smoking, fast talking lady adventurer, perhaps making eyes at her handsome fellow agents in between computer searches and status meetings. This is where director Bigelow's influence is most strongly felt. Jessica Chastain has this beautiful head of red hair but she's strictly business. Maya's associates try to get her to open up, but no dice. When asked if she has lovers or friends, Maya declines to answer. Fellow agent Jessica (Jennifer Ehle) tries out the girl talk route, but there's nothing there but the professional relationship. Essentially, Maya is a secret warrior for the post- Cold War world. If she feels uncomfortable not having a private life it doesn't show. She's personally taken on the moral weight of her mission, as these tiny teams have the only hope of avenging 9/11 and taking down its perpetrators. Other agents are worried about their jobs, or distracted by conflicting instructions from Washington. Maya just keeps saying that she's going to kill Osama bin Laden, no buts about it.
The scale of the production dwarfs that of The Hurt Locker. The story ranges all over the map in the U.S. and Pakistan. There is even an episode in Kuwait where Dan obtains a phone number from an Arab prince by buying him a $150,000 Lamborghini on the C.I.A.'s dime. Torture is repellent but the alternatives can get pricey, it seems. Everything to do with the raid is done in careful detail, from the (sometimes) computer-generated 'copters to the SEAL Team raiders' super soldier gear. Their multi-lens night vision goggles make them look like insects, and their silenced rifles reduce gunshot noises to the level of taps on tin cans.
Besting the hardware show are the interesting characters. The screenplay only lets us know things about them that other work associates would see, and eschews the externalization of inner "themes": they are what they do and nothing more. Dan the torture expert has a practical attitude toward waterboarding and humiliating prisoners, and soon elects to return to a desk job. Jessica is a bit too caught up in the excitement of her job, and her hopeful optimism for a big break has disastrous consequences. Supervisor boss Joe (Kyle Chandler of the King Kong remake) is a well-meaning bureaucrat who nevertheless pokes holes in Maya's theories and looks lazy when compared to her 24/7 lifestyle. Making a good impression is Édgar Ramirez (the star of Carlos) as Maya's on-the-street point man in Abbottabad, the man with the riskiest job of all.
Maya does not participate in the 'decisive' action scenes, but her presence is such that it makes no difference. Zero Dark Thirty succeeds best in convincing us that Maya is a tough lady who works with men in a traditionally male atmosphere without gender friction. She's too forbidding to cozy up to people for favors and only Jessica dares ask her personal questions. Maya also doesn't try to compensate with an affected style or swagger. Everyone accepts her as a pro, even the SEAL Team guys, who are depicted as baseball & barbecue roughnecks, but with class. Maya is not shy -- she jumps halfway down Joe's throat with her opinion about not easing off on the search -- killing bin Laden is indeed defending the Homeland, if he's directing terror operations from Pakistan. Even the C.I.A. director (James Gandolfini) respects Maya, after just one meeting. The other execs in the high-level meeting are "cowed", but Maya identifies herself as "the motherf_____ who found the compound where bin Laden is hiding out."
Jessica Chastain earned her Oscar nomination, no question... when Maya gets loud and insistent she betrays not a hit of hysteria or loss of control. Thus the very serious story is not trivialized. The show begins with terrified voices pleading from the World Trade Center, and ends with a bloody murder raid on bin Laden's stronghold. We've just spent ten years watching anti- Iraq war dramas that the public mostly rejected. In three or four years, this spy-combat show about the Middle East conflict will not be a dated relic.
Zero Dark Thirty was eventually exploited for cheap controversy back in Washington. Politicians called it out for claiming that torture provided clues to bin Laden's capture. Too many people still deny that we 'good guys' do bad things in our state of Perpetual War, whether it be torture, targeted assassinations or just plain murder by remote control drone. How can the intelligence and military arenas make sense of policy when politicians lament the abolishment of practices that they claim were never really used? To her credit, Ms. Bigelow defended the film's (and her own) patriotism and integrity in no uncertain terms. The stigma probably cost Zero some box office as well as an even shake in the Oscar sweepstakes. True to form, the Academy opted for the painless alternative, Argo. That's okay, as both movies are basically about American intelligence experts dealing with the consequences of American foreign policy of the past (that's the polite way to say it). The message may eventually seep through.
I believe that the film attracted flak precisely because the story was not told in a context of, "America defends its freedom" flag-waving. Personally, Zero Dark Thirty worked for me because it does not push a concerted point of view, except to insist that hunting down the S.O.B. bin Laden is a good idea. We're left to make up our own minds.
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment's Blu-ray of Zero Dark Thirty is a great-looking disc that shows off the visual enhancements of Kathryn Bigelow's larger budget. Filmed largely in Jordan, the show's surface is entirely convincing, even the SEAL Team's raid. We're told that the greenish night vision images are authentic and not a special effect.
The package also contains a DVD of the show, with instructions to link into your very own piece-of-sky Ultraviolet version.
Sony provides four quality extra featurettes: a making-of piece, a look at the building of a duplicate of bin Laden's stronghold, a piece about training the actors playing SEALs, and a featurette with Jessica Chastain discussing her character. Maya certainly makes an impression, even if it is not an emotional one. Like the hero of The Hurt Locker, we stay outside Maya's feelings and can only guess at why she cries in the last scene. It is just relief that her job is done? With her all-consuming quest finished, is she perhaps wondering what kind of work she could possibly be suited for?
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Zero Dark Thirty Blu-ray rates:
Reviews on the Savant main site have additional credits information and are often updated and annotated with footnotes, reader input and graphics.