Zero Dark Thirty (2012)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Two years after the September 11 attacks in New York City, Maya (Jessica Chastain), an officer of the CIA, is sent to the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan to work with another officer, Dan (Jason Clarke), who is charge of interrogating Ammar (Reda Kateb), suspected to be connected to important Saudi terrorists. Torturing the detainee when he fails to cooperate, Dan and Maya eventually hear about a man named Abu Ahmed. Ammar claims that Abu Ahmed is a courier for Osama bin Laden. Other men who are questioned under similar conditions confirm this. Over the years, Maya devotes her life tracking this piece of information which inevitably leads to the killing of bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
Written by Mark Boal and directed by Kathryn Bigelow, “Zero Dark Thirty” has received a lot of censure for supposedly endorsing torture by means of extracting information. This is most unfortunate because some of the bad press have convinced many not to see a quiet but incredibly thrilling film about a great manhunt that has lasted over a decade. As a film, not a collection of hard facts, “Zero Dark Thirty” commands elegance in characterization and construction of tension from gradual heat to a boil.
It is understandable that most will find themselves exasperated during the first half. Nothing much happens. At least not on the surface. And that is exactly what I liked about it. A recurring theme is the fact that gathering reliable and valid intelligence takes time. We are so used to amphetamine-fueled action movies involving the CIA and other government groups finding out all there is to know about everything and everyone in a matter of minutes that when something like this comes along, some of us do not know what to make of it. Plenty of names and technical terms bounce around our eardrums that all of them sound the same eventually. It is easy not to care until something goes boom!
The sudden bursts of violence break the slow stream of questions, muffled hopes, and quiet disappointments. One of the most chilling scenes, at least for me, is the bombing that takes place in a hotel. After the explosion and smoke starts to blend with dust, there is no score to suggest that something exciting is happening. No, music would have masked the tragedy that has happened. There are only screams of pain, disoriented people shuffling about and trying to get on their feet, a collective fear and confusion. Because it looks and feels so real, I found myself shaking and wanting to detach from the material but could not do so. I craved to know what will happen next.
Two women characters are given the chance to shine. There is Jessica (Jennifer Ehle), an officer in the embassy who we suspect might butt heads with Maya. She believes that money is so persuasive that even those who seem like they will never break from their ideologies will be enticed in the least. Her relationship with Maya is taken into an unexpected direction. Meanwhile, Chastain plays her character with the most convincing intelligence mixed with sophistication, resolve melded with obsession, and courage to push and demand others not to partake in a state of quiescence. Chastain’s scenes with Kyle Chandler, playing a CIA station chief, contain the right amount of balance between animosity and respect. When details get confusing, it is helpful that she is there to serve as our compass. Due to the nature of her job, it is necessary that she knows she is always right.
“Zero Dark Thirty” can be too cold at times given its procedural nature but this does not lessen the material’s power in any way. On the contrary, I respected the focus and vision from behind the lens like the raid scene shot in heavy darkness on purpose to prevent us from seeing anything concrete. In a way, it can be taken as the antithesis of a commercial action picture that glorifies violence where we are forced to see every chunk of tissue flying into the air.