Is it sexist to feel the need to point out that the two best action/war movies in recent times have been made by a woman director?
Zero Dark Thirty. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow. At cinemas throughout New England.
By Glenn Rifkin.
It remains to be seen whether the brewing controversy surrounding director Kathryn Bigelow’s masterpiece Zero Dark Thirty will enhance or detract from the film’s success at the box office. But given Bigelow’s subject matter in this and her previous movie, the Oscar-winning Hurt Locker, it would be safe to say that this brilliant filmmaker is not much worried about box office receipts.
Zero Dark Thirty is awash in Oscar buzz, filmgoer buzz, and Beltway finger-pointing as angry members of Congress believe this drama, which focuses on the decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden, inaccurately portrays the CIA’s use of torture in leading to the eventual finding and killing of the infamous head of Al Qaeda.
Truth is, the controversy does not detract from the artistry of this film. Zero Dark Thirty is nothing less than a stunning cinematic achievement: like Hurt Locker, it builds a story around actual events, feels documentary-like in its presentation, and ends up delivering a powerful emotional and aesthetic experience. It would be difficult to avoid labeling it the best movie of the year.
Bigelow, along with her screenwriter and collaborator Mark Boal, has set the bar way high for military drama. How would the pair follow up on its Best Picture/Best Director Oscar achievement for Hurt Locker? With this film, they blow the sophomore slump concept out of the water. Is it sexist to feel the need to point out that the two best action/war movies in recent times have been made by a woman director?
Needless to say, Bigelow, like no other current director, has shown she has the sensibility and deft touch to craft effective story-telling around the harsh and brutal realities of the war on terrorism. She pulls no punches but brings a sensitivity to the narrative that allows the audience to feel a deep emotional attachment to her characters, regardless of the harsh circumstances in which they operate. Bigelow has found a way to bring the viewer into her unique cinematic no man’s land, bringing us as close as most of us will ever get to the terror and trauma of watershed events in the war on terror.
In Zero Dark Thirty, the multitalented Jessica Chastain portrays Maya, a young, inexperienced CIA operative who arrives two years after 9/11 to join the massive manhunt for bin Laden. Wearing a black ski mask, Maya is ushered into an undisclosed “Black Site” operation, located in either Afghanistan or Pakistan. She stands apprehensively in the shadows as Dan, the lead interrogator (played brilliantly by Jason Clarke), employs “enhanced interrogation techniques” to question Ammar, an Al Qaeda money man, in an effort to extract information about bin Laden’s whereabouts. If you wondered what waterboarding looked like, you will get a graphic and frightening eyeful here.
At first, we have no idea who Maya is or what she is doing in this wretched place. Once she removes the mask, her waif-like appearance and her obvious aversion to the torture have us wondering if she is a reporter or a low-level support person. But we quickly learn that she is the newest member of the CIA team and that she is tenacious, competent, and insightful. Over the next decade, Maya will serve as an undaunted catalyst in the hunt for bin Laden.
Chastain’s remarkable acting skills are exercised to the full as we watch Maya morph, ever so subtly, into a weary but unbending warrior in what appears to be an endless and fruitless quest. As Maya closes in on bin Laden, she must maneuver through a frustrating political minefield within the CIA, and she just barely holds it together emotionally. Chastain’s ability to combine innocence and ferocity, as she did in the underappreciated film The Debt, in which she plays a young Mossad agent and Nazi-hunter, strengthens Maya’s complex intensity. In many ways, Chastain’s Maya calls to mind Claire Dane’s award-winning portrayal of Carrie, albeit absent the bipolar baggage, in Showtime’s popular Homeland series. A woman operating in this hostile, testosterone-laden environment has to be one tough motherfucker, unwilling to break or flee.
Boal’s brilliant screenplay, based on actual events, will likely end up as assigned reading in future film classes. There is not a wasted moment (or a cliche) during the 157 minute long film. Clarke’s nuanced portrayal of the interrogator, at once passionately human and unnervingly sadistic, is emblematic of our nation’s quandary in this ambiguous war on terror. In contrast, Chastain’s Maya (based on a real life, CIA female agent who was a key player in the search for bin Laden) puts her own ethical qualms aside because she is not only a patriot but a realist. Surrounded by overbearing, angry men, she serves as the film’s moral and visual center. Maya eventually bonds with Jessica, an older, more seasoned veteran (portrayed by Jennifer Ehle), but she proves to be the more adept survivor.
Not unlike Argo, the year’s other intense action drama, the final sequence in Zero Dark Thirty (a military term for 12:30 a.m.) is not for the fainthearted. Even knowing the outcome, there is a seat-squirming, pounding 30 minutes that is as good as it gets in a war drama. Only the heroic SEAL Team Six knows what it was like in that Abbottabad compound in Pakistan on that fateful night. But now, thanks to Bigelow, we have been there as well. You can almost feel the night-vision helmet on your head as the green laser beams dart through the darkness. Though this is, at heart, a revenge story, the film is less about the gratifications of vengeance than it is a testament to the remarkable precision and courageous execution of this historic mission.
Because Bigelow tends to utilize mostly unknowns in her cast, including an array of talented, Middle Eastern actors, it is a bit startling to see recognizable faces such as James Gandolfini as the CIA director and Friday Night Lights Kyle Chandler as the Islamabad station chief. But these are minor complaints. Zero Dark Thirty is a film of and for our times. If you judge the impact of a movie by how long it sticks with you in the days after you’ve seen it, then Zero Dark Thirty will deliver an unforgettable body blow.