Kathryn Bigelow made a huge leap in terms of women filmmakers when she snagged the best director nomination for The Hurt Locker a few years back, a very powerful and poignant film, no doubt deserved of such merits. Similarly, Jessica Chastain has supplanted herself into moviegoers minds with her presence as an actress, often playing omniscient mother figures with an ambient presence to the narrative. Of course, one needs only to begin to explain the plot of Zero Dark Thirty to make a case for it not existing within the traditions of a what society deems a feminine picture, of course this is no surprise considering that Bigelow often enters a very masculine world in the films she creates, not to mention possesses a very keen consideration of military imagery in American cinema, yet it is certainly worth considering her choice to center the narrative of the lead up to the assassination of Osama Bin Laden within the perspective of a female, furthermore via the actress Jessica Chastain, who many felt to be playing against her character type. I personally found Zero Dark Thirty to be an absolute cinematic spectacle, not to mention yet another performance by Chastain, leading me to wonder if she is not the best woman working in Hollywood as it stands. The subject matter focused on within the narrative of Zero Dark Thirty is certainly not something to take lightly, particularly considering the amount of life lost on both sides of what ended up being a decade of warfare and violent attacks. Bigelow briefly provides viewers with a reminder that her story is drawn from the descriptions of a handful of accounts surrounding the decade, however, this reminder of her involvement in the, ultimately, fictional narrative, nonetheless, proves to be profusely well-researched, and save for a couple of anachronistically placed songs and cultural references manages to lend a very earnest camera to considering a very pertinent rhetoric on America's post-9/11 relationship with the rest of the world. Bigelow has received some heavy handed criticism for her depictions of torture, political machinations and the raid on Osama Bin Laden's quarters, yet how one stands on the issues leading up to the eventual assassination of Bin Laden should prove irrelevant, and, ultimately, do, as Bigelow provides an account of events as she envisions them, specifically through one woman's attempt to navigate a system that proves incredibly unreceptive to her presence.
Zero Dark Thirty begins quite intensely with a black screen paired with the distressed calls of victims inside the World Trade Center on September 11th, 2001, creating a clear line as to where this films desires to go, only to follow this up with images of Maya (Jessica Chastain) sitting in on her first torture session for the CIA led by Dan (Jason Clarke) a sporadic, scruffy man whose extensive education in human psychology has led him to be a nightmare to any political detainees possessing information relating to then alive terrorist Osama Bin Laden. Maya proves to be a well-established expert in the field of Middle Eastern terrorism and proves an asset to Dan as they attempt to discover all persons with close ties to Bin Laden, particularly one alias known as Abu Ahmed, the alleged highest courier for the elusive Bin Laden. However, despite Maya's incredible work, the bureaucracy involved in finding such individuals proves burdensome and Dan extracts himself from the situation, choosing to move back to Washington D.C. and work within the safety of his own country. Maya struggles on for many more years attempting to locate the elusive Abu Ahmed, while also facing a rash of criticism from American citizens and the global community who believe their actions with suspected terrorists to be inhumane, while also feeling the pressure of higher officials who demand results in the face of repeated terrorist attacks on a global scale. Maya nearly gives up hope completely when she is led to believe that Abu Ahmed has died, however, information suggesting that it may well have been his brother, leads the beleaguered Maya to throw one last effort into finding the seemingly nonexistent courier to Bin Laden, yet when luck strikes Maya is certain they have found the compound housing the terrorist leader. After months of jumping through hoops for government officials, Maya eventually gets a task force together to raid the compound, which, as history has shown, proved quite successful, although if the closing image of the film is to be taken for anything, Maya clearly reflects on how worth it the sacrifice was to a nation, but, most importantly, to herself.
I thought with some certainty that Django Unchained and its problematic racism would prove to be this years most divisive film, however, the issue of America and its relationship with the use of torture has instead led to a huge critical divide as it relates to Zero Dark Thirty. It appears as though figures on the side of conservative loathe the film for reminding viewers that it was the Obama administration that killed Bin Laden, although to be fair, regardless of a film existing it is still a true statement. On the left, outcries are directed at what is assumed to be a favorable view on torture as a means to obtain information, and, yet again, while the integral piece of information necessary to finding the man closely tied to Bin Laden did come from torture, at least in this films depiction, one cannot overlook the amount of research and persistence on Maya's part as it relates to finding Bin Laden. Furthermore, one cannot argue with the character of Maya clearly struggling with her choice to have ties to torture, especially since it involves the degradation of yet another human life. It is a heavy moral cloud that exists over Zero Dark Thirty one that Chastain clearly depicts on her face throughout the film and manages to retain even in the films closing moments, yet, Bigelow is also careful to paint the other individuals involved in an equally unbiased light whether it be Dan, whose seemingly detached violent persona is undermined in a moment of tranquility he shares with some monkeys, or any handful of Maya's superiors who are clearly trying only to assure the safety of the global community. Finally, it is Bigelow's careful choice to minimize the screen time of middle eastern bodies in the film, not because their story is not important, indeed it is quite pertinent and in need of telling, but as far as the narrative is concerned, Bigelow is aware that to assume the actions of the otherside in the film would be foolish and would counter her well-researched work. Furthemore, while the film is about finding and killing Bin Laden, he hardly plays the villain, instead it is the idea of human disdain and extremism hindering global community at the heart of the struggle for each character, one that at times leads to sacrifice and bad decisions, but when met with persistence assures a safer world in the end. Zero Dark Thirty is not a film to be taken lightly and demands many watchings, something I intend to do with hopes of navigating the troublesome world of post-9/11 politics.
Key Scene: This film possesses the single greatest closing scene in a film all year and makes the nearly three hour screening well worth it.
You will be surprised at the stillness that comes over the theater while this film is on, partially because its cinematic nature captures you, but more so because it sets up viewers with an ethical dilemma for which it hardly provides an answer, and this is one of the rare cases where that is completely acceptable.