Whenever I would see a great movie back in the day, I would embarrassingly gush, throwing around words like “masterpiece” and “one of the best films ever!” This hyperbolic tendency has deteriorated over the years as my knowledge of film and its process has increased. Other films that have come out this year, such as Life of Pi and Moonrise Kingdom have thoroughly satisfied me as a moviegoer but they didn’t give me any indication that they would become modern classics. And keep in mind, these are my #3 and #4 movies of 2012. However, one film has come along and stolen the #1 slot for Best Film of the Year, and that film is Zero Dark Thirty. Director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal are no strangers to tackling the war in the Middle East, having both won Oscars for their work in The Hurt Locker. When it was announced that the team would return to tell the story of the hunt for Osama bin Laden, anticipation was high. And then the conversation changed. Early reports about the various torture scenes caused a huge scandal in our nation’s capital. Senators and representatives who hadn’t even seen the film were condemning its supposed condoning of torture and its implications that said torture was ultimately what led the CIA to bin Laden. An investigation was even launched to determine the full legality of Bigelow and Boal’s access to classified CIA intel. While accepting the Best Picture award at the New York Critics Circle, Bigelow stated: “I thankfully want to say that I’m standing in a room of people who understand that depiction is not endorsement”. This could not be more true. In fact, the film takes a decidedly impartial stance, not just on torture, but on the true cost of war and revenge.
In the end, it all comes down to the steadfast dedication of one woman, whose 10 years of obsession and persistence is at the heart of Zero Dark Thirty. Maya (Jessica Chastain) is a woman of meager size, but her presence in the male-dominated world of the CIA forces her to overcompensate through near steely confidence. As she observes a terrorist suspect being tortured at the beginning of the film, she feels like a fish out of water. She flinches and looks away, and even when she assures the suspect that the pain will stop if he tells the truth, it is clear that she is battling her own morality on the situation. As the film goes along, her conviction becomes sharper as her focus narrows on capturing one man, the elusive “Abu Ahmed”, a personal courier for bin Laden. Even as colleagues attempt to steer her away in the hunt’s most stagnant hours, she refuses to give up. One of the film’s key scenes comes when CIA director Leon Panetta (James Gandolfini) asks Maya if she’s done anything for the CIA besides this case, to which she firmly states that she’s done nothing else. It’s a powerful scene, filled with different meanings and implications, one of many in the film’s 2-and-a-half hours.
The action sequences are filmed with remarkable suspense, with Bigelow building the scenes naturally and slowly while utilizing the power of silence. When its used, the score is very understated and free of flourishes, forcing the audience to be more affected by the realism of the action onscreen than through a bombastic action score. The ending of the film should come as no surprise to anyone not living under a rock, but Bigelow somehow manages to imbue the final raid with the most suspense. I can’t remember feeling such a unnerving sense of paranoia and anticipation from a movie in a very long time. However, the movie spends a great deal of time getting to this point, with the middle portion of the film being procedural in nature: Maya follows a lead which draws her to more clues which ultimately draws her to a clearer picture of his whereabouts. Despite this, nothing feels repetitive, with each scene building on the last. Most of the film is spent on the gathering of intel and the process of deductive reasoning, not torture and Call of Duty-esque action sequences, which certainly could have been the case in lesser hands. It is because of this strangely compelling grunt work that the final sequence is so rewarding, for us and for Maya. Maya’s emotional struggle and ultimate desire for justice to be served in a cynical post-9/11 world is not unlike our own, and Bigelow manages to accurately capture these moral ambiguities. The film provides no answers to the question, “Was it all worth it?” and this decision is precisely what elevates the film to the status of a modern-day classic.
MVP: Jessica Chastain with special merit for Kathryn Bigelow’s direction
One final thought: Having now seen the film, the decision to snub Kathryn Bigelow for Best Director at the Oscars will likely go down as one of the biggest missteps in Academy history.