Film Review: Zero Dark Thirty

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Zero Dark Thirty is the gripping true life account of the hunt for Osama bin Laden and Kathryn Bigelow superbly tells that story through the eyes of our protagonist Maya.

Maya is a young CIA agent when our story begins shortly after the attacks on September 11th and the US is busy torturing terrorists in CIA black sites around the world. One name keeps popping up, Abu Ahmed, and Maya begins the hunt for him by overturning every rock as she quickly views him as the key to getting bin Laden.

The film is a methodical procedural and we stick with Maya’s perspective of it all through the majority of the film.  We slowly get to know her, she is reportedly “a killer,” and as she gets deeper into the hunt for Ahmed/Bin Laden she becomes a stronger and more confident presence among her peers. Maya is played wonderfully by Jessica Chastain who calmly sits in the corner when asked, but can be quite the handful if you go against her.  Chastain captures her depth with ease and is full of emptiness when she realizes there is nothing left for her after bin Laden is dead and gone.  She is excellent and she also gets some of the best lines of the year here.

Following a young, pretty CIA agent in the field isn’t the sexy spy romp like we have been fed in countless films, but ZDT isn’t without some engaging set pieces and many surprises for a film based on recent history.  Director Bigelow keeps the story moving along with ease and at two hours in forty minutes I never once felt the length.  You might know the ins and outs of the raid on bin Laden’s compound, but you most likely don’t know Maya’s story which is as compelling as anything in the film’s thrilling final act. The film is beautifully shot and features a haunting score to move the picture right along, but we shouldn’t expect anything less from a picture and director of this caliber.  The film is dense with information but l feel like we only saw the tip of the iceberg. They squeeze in so many details and facts over the course of the run time and that is just the stuff Maya and her team uncovers.  This story could have made for an even longer run time and not a moment is wasted here.

The first three quarters of the film are exclusively centered around Maya, but the film’s final act is given over almost entirely to Seal Team Six’s raid on the bin Laden compound.  The sequence is as thrilling as you would expect and surprisingly not full of glitz and flash we have come to expect from our action sequences.  The assault feels authentic and Bigelow doesn’t try to stylize the proceedings as she takes us right along the assault as if we were a suited up member of the assault team. The film doesn’t glamorize the assault; it plays it accurately and I couldn’t be happier for it.  The sequence is excellent, but to speak to the overall quality of the film I found the assault on the compound to be the least interesting aspect of the film; I will take Maya shooting off her mouth over Seal Team Six shooting a couple terrorists.

Bigelow fills her cast with a wonderful ensemble to surround Chastain in what might be one of the best casts of the year.  Jennifer Ehle, Harold Perrineau, Édgar Ramírez and Kyle Chandler fill the Pakistan office and help provide a personal arc for Maya over her many years in service. Joel Edgerton and Chris Pratt provide some comedic relief during the assault while being more than convincing as our military’s best soldiers.  James Gandolfini, Mark Duplass and Stephen Dillane are all great working for the CIA and all bring a sense of humor into the picture as well. There are some standouts among the pack though, the first being Jason Clarke who plays an agent/interrogator that first brings Maya into the CIA world and he is both menacing and funny as the two work together on and off over the course of the film.  Mark Strong also pops up and steals every scene he’s in as a higher up for the CIA that eventually pitches the raid on the compound to the National Security Advisor.  He is particularly good at showing how Maya slowly gets under his skin and drives him towards getting this strike the green light.  There are plenty of other familiar faces as well and the casting of the film was second to only maybe Lincoln in 2012.

Zero Dark Thirty is near perfect in its execution and made amazing by the fact that this film is apparently pretty damn accurate.  The commercials are selling the third act, but it’s the exhaustive hunt by Maya that will most engage many film goers. That is certainly something considering the climax is the most important military action of my lifetime, but that doesn’t disappoint either.  Chastain and her supporting cast are excellent and Bigelow has set a high bar for herself going forward.

Zero Dark Thirty is an A

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