We think we know about how Osama bin Laden was killed, about the failed attempt in Tora Bora and the manhunt that followed, the Seal Team Six raid in Pakistan and the burial at sea. But in unrelenting and intimate detail, Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty enriches and complicates that story, focusing on the intrepid CIA agents who led the hunt, the minor and major tragedies that made it take so long, and the obsessions that made it possible.
Though some of the details are fictionalised – including Jessica Chastain’s lead character, Maya – Zero Dark Thirty has the weight of modern history behind it, taking us through CIA black ops sites and torture chambers, touching briefly on the 2005 London bombings and Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, and opening with a harrowing, audio-only recreation of 9/11 using phone calls from inside the burning World Trade Centre. Even as Mark Boal’s script burrows inside the specifics of CIA work and asks us to keep track of a multitude of operatives and terrorists, it never loses sight of the stakes of the historic manhunt, which continued even after many in the CIA believed Bin Laden was already dead.
Played with incredible, coiled precision by Chastain, Maya is the vital centre of this massive and wide-reaching film, doggedly pursuing Bin Laden for nearly 10 years along countless dead-end leads. Tipped off to the existence of a courier with close ties to Bin Laden, Maya hunts him down across international borders using interrogation, torture and even the occasional Lamborghini bribe. She has help from some colleagues (notably Jason Clarke and Jennifer Ehle) and constant skepticism from others, such as Kyle Chandler’s CIA bureau chief and, eventually, CIA head Leon Panetta (played by James Gandolfini in a brief appearance). Maya’s determination and refusal to show emotion, even after brutal tragedy, makes her an intimidating figure, but with the benefit of hindsight and Chastain’s remarkable performance, we root for her impossible cause anyway.
Operating on the investigative rhythms of a procedural, with occasional pops of suspense and sudden violence, Zero Dark Thirty shifts into a markedly different mode near the end, following the precise movements of the Seal Team Six mission that actually killed Bin Laden. That superb sequence may be what audiences are expecting from Bigelow, director of heart-pumping thrillers such as The Hurt Locker and Point Break, but the adrenaline of the end wouldn’t mean nearly as much without the methodical hunt that comes before it.
It shouldn’t go unnoticed that Bigelow, the first woman in history to win a best director Oscar, has looked behind the all-male Navy Seal team that killed Bin Laden and found a woman – several of them, actually – who set it all up. Maya’s femininity affects her character in many fascinating, tiny ways, but it’s just one of the many rich details that makes Zero Dark Thirty so riveting. Telling a nearly three-hour story with an ending everyone knows, Bigelow and Boal have managed to craft one of the most intense and intellectually challenging films of the year.
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