Kathryn Bigelow's gripping docu-drama "Zero Dark Thirty" is technically about the 2011 mission that resulted in the killing of Osama bin Laden, the terrorist leader who brought so much sadness and fear to America and the rest of the world. But that's not what interests Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal. We know how that story ends.
What interests the two Oscar-winning filmmakers is the journey that brought us to that point. The duo calmly and chillingly chronicles the dark and exhausting trek our nation took into a moral grey zone. It's a path that includes the loss of thousands of innocent lives, two bloody wars, a country in fear and ethical conflict. We may have come out with our mission accomplished, but was it worth it? Is the scab created by so many lives lost and morals bent healed? And where do we go now?
These are the questions that haunt Bigelow's terrific procedural. They haunt the audience well after the end credits have run and the popcorn has been thrown out. They also make "Zero Dark Thirty" one of the most thrilling and thought-provoking films of the year.
Oscar nominee Jessica Chastain stars as Maya, a young CIA operative sent to Pakistan to put her knowledge and research into bin Laden to use in the hunt. When we first meet her, she is witnessing a prisoner getting tied up and waterboarded for information. She's clearly rattled but unwavering. Jason Clarke, chilling without becoming villainous, plays Dan, the man in charge of the process.
After several more bouts of waterboarding, confinement, starvation and shaming, the prisoner refuses to crack. Constantly pressed for time, Maya and Dan eventually try a new tactic: taking the man for lunch and using old-fashioned trickery. The plot works, providing Maya with the name of bin Laden's key messenger, Abu Ahmed, the first crucial clue in the laborious manhunt.
The use of torture and EITs – enhanced interrogation techniques – in "Zero Dark Thirty" has seemingly created more anger and controversy than the potential use of the same tactics in real life. However, the facts are simple. Bigelow's film does not promote torture. Portrayal is not the same as promotion, and, as presented by Bigelow and Boal, the inhumane tactics are uncomfortably intense, haunting, borderline unbearable and not all that useful. In fact, almost every other tactic is more effective for our protagonists – that is, if we can really call them that.
The movie opens with the panicked, horrifying sounds of Sept. 11. The audience's collective wound has been reopened, ready to be healed by heroes. Instead, we get operatives with their sense of humanity blinded by their mission. Bigelow's camera and use of Chastain's character as the audience's link into the story makes the viewer complicit, making it even more unsettling to watch.
Does any of this sound like a glowing endorsement for torture? Even if one argues the tactics used in "Zero Dark Thirty" lead to bin Laden, the final goal is unrewarding. Once again, was it worth it?
Back to the story. The information gained eventually leads Maya onto a massive and intricate trail of leads, locales and dead ends. The project is her sole existence and obsession, even while its death toll, frustrations and urgency make it hard to cling to hope and stay enthusiastic about her one true purpose. Eventually, thanks to some crafty spy work and research (not torture, mind), they find the terrorist leader's compound. The rest – Seal Team 6's successful raid on bin Laden's compound, led in the film by Joel Edgerton ("Warrior") and Chris Pratt (TV's "Parks and Recreation") – is now history.
Chastain, who has been growing into one of Hollywood's finest actresses with great roles in "Take Shelter," "The Tree of Life" and "The Help," is the emotional glue that keeps the story in "Zero Dark Thirty" together. Watching Maya subtly evolve throughout the movie, growing more and more into her professional obsession, is captivating, and Chastain plays every scene perfectly. She's wonderfully expressive in smaller, more nuanced scenes but still more than capable during her character's big bursts of emotion.
Maya is the audience's window into the story, and well as one of the film's lone key characters, so a strong lead performance was crucial. With the wrong actress, she could have ended up being a cliche, plucky heroine. Luckily, Chastain delivers one of the year's best. It always helps to be surrounded by such a solid supporting cast as well, including Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Mark Strong and James Gandolfini.
It's an easy connection to make between Maya and Kathryn Bigelow. They're both strong women, excelling in fields normally considered boys' clubs. It's an interesting connection, but that's not why Bigelow succeeds with "Zero Dark Thirty." She's proving yet again that she's not just a great female director. She's just a great director, period.
Bigelow and Boal previously hit Oscar gold with "The Hurt Locker," and if anything, "Zero Dark Thirty" is a step up. Both create a film of fascinating authenticity. There's never any doubt, even when recognizable names show up, that what the audience is witnessing is what really happened. The investigation, the tactics, the dialogue, the hard-edged characters and even just the offices all feel pulled straight from reality, especially the climactic raid, which shows one need not sacrifice realism and pacing for the sake of intensity and thrills.
That's not to say the movie isn't intense. Far from it. The end mission is one of the most well-crafted, heart-pounding sequences of the year. Just the helicopter flight into the compound gets the blood pulsing. Even the investigation, mainly people talking in board meetings and sitting at desks, attempting to put vague pieces together, is riveting to watch. Bigelow and Boal give the story a sense of urgency – a surprising amount considering "Zero Dark Thirty" is over 150 minutes – that makes every action and meeting feel like everything weighs in the balance.
Best of all, Bigelow backs off on some of the excesses that infected her previous film, namely the stylish slow motion shots of dirt rattling and bullet casings bouncing off the ground. "Zero Dark Thirty" smartly strips itself of those showy moments in favor of a cold, calculated approach that best lays out the story, the characters and the dilemmas for the viewer to parse out.
The only misstep is the use of fairly needless chapters that break up the film, but that's such a minor nitpick, it's hardly worth mentioning. It's strange but certainly not detrimental.
The result is a smart, contemplative thriller that's emotionally challenging. The ending sequences may be intense, but when the mission is done and the target is eliminated – with plenty of children and family on hand – it's hard to feel satisfied. Even the man who ends up shooting bin Laden has to be told by a fellow SEAL about what he's done.
"Zero Dark Thirty" refuses to wave flags and hand out easy victories. It's about the dark exhausting path of obsession that looks into the cost of justice in modern war. Even Alexandre Desplat's haunting score over the film's last act hints at Bernard Herrmann's famous theme from "Vertigo," another movie about an unsatisfied obsession.
By the end, I walked out of the theater exhausted – and deservedly so. An almost decade-long investigation should not feel short. There was no catharsis or sense of relief, but I still felt a rush. It was the rush provided by a director, an actor and a writer all working at the top of their game, providing plenty of tough questions and no easy answers.
1 comment about this article.
Post your comment/review now
Disclaimer: Please note that Facebook comments are posted through Facebook and cannot be approved, edited or declined by OnMilwaukee.com. The opinions expressed in Facebook comments do not necessarily reflect those of OnMilwaukee.com or its staff.
Recent Articles & Blogs by Matt Mueller
Published Aug. 2, 2015
Jake Gyllenhaal's impressive physical transformation from scrawny media parasite in "Nightcrawler" to pro boxer in "Southpaw" has snagged most of the movie's pre-release hubbub - partly because, well, there's not all that much to say about the cliche-ridden, predictable film housing that handsome new physique.
Published Aug. 1, 2015
Like a real-life version of the 2010 Greek film "Dogtooth," six boys and their little sister weren't allowed to leave their drab New York City apartment for almost all of their young lives thanks to their parents' rules. First-time director Crystal Moselle certainly stumbles onto a fascinating story for her doc "The Wolfpack," and she doesn't waste it either, absorbing the viewer into a bizarre and often unsettling psychological experiment playing out right in reality.
Published July 24, 2015
At first glance, Ellington Ratliff may seem like the odd man in the pop rock band R5. He's the only one who's not a member of the Lynch family. He's the only one with a first name that doesn't begin with R (Riker, Rocky, Ross and Rydel make up the rest), and he's the only bandmate not born and raised in Colorado. Instead, Ratliff was born out in Los Angeles and split time in Wisconsin, making the band's Riverside gig Friday night a return of sorts.
Published July 23, 2015
If the last two days have proven anything, it's that Milwaukee will freaking lose their mind over the mere idea of a lion. At least, local movie fans Stephen Milek and Christopher Kai House certainly hope that is the case, as the two film buffs attempt to bring the notoriously insane 1981 thriller/borderline snuff film "Roar" to town.
Published July 22, 2015
Bookended by AJ Bombers and Water Street Brewery, Water Street is famous for three Bs: bars, burgers and bros. The tightly packed combination of those things has made the area a popular nighttime hot spot. Yet amongst all of the bars and clubs is something unexpected: A. Werner Silversmith, a buried treasure - quite literally considering its glass cases and shelves containing shimmering, beautifully repaired silver pieces - hiding in plain sight.
Published July 20, 2015
Brooklyn-based indie band Lazyeyes guitarist and singer Jason Abrishami has never been to Milwaukee - let alone any part of the Midwest really. He admits he hasn't even heard that much about the Cream City, but he'll learn about the city firsthand Wednesday night when the band and its shoegaze-laced dream rock makes its maiden trip to the city via a gig at The Mad Planet.
Published July 19, 2015
Tarsem Singh is a man who spent about four years and much of his own money traveling the globe's most outrageously beautiful locales in order to make his magnum opus "The Fall." So how'd he end up standing behind the camera of "Self/Less," an utterly anonymous and impact-free immortality action-thriller that - much like the fresh if not quite new bodies being peddled in the film - seems "alive only in the most basic sense"?
Published July 18, 2015
What if? It's two simple words, not even adding up 10 letters, but that seemingly innocent question has likely haunted every single person that's walked this planet at some point or another. And it's a question that fascinates Milwaukee native Cynthia Swanson, so much so that she made that idea the cornerstone for her debut novel, "The Bookseller."
Published July 17, 2015
Every band has at least a small group of devoted fans cheering it on and supporting it on its way to the spotlight. The retro "nu-wop" family band The Bronx Wanderers, coming to Festa Italiana this weekend, is no different - except some of those devoted fans just happen to be entertainment icons from their hometown neighborhood, including Dion DiMucci, Tony Orlando and Oscar-nominated actors Chazz Palminteri and Danny Aiello.
Published July 15, 2015
When Festa Italiana starts up this Friday at Henry Maier Festival Park, many will flock down to the lakefront to gulp down some real authentic Italian food and wine. Yet some of the most revered tastes of Italian culture coming to town this weekend are wholly inedible: the lovingly crafted and almost identical replicas of the country's most famous sites - this year including a 50-foot duplicate of the iconic Trevi Fountain.