Monday, January 14, 2013

"Zero Dark Thirty" (2012)

Starring Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke and Joel Edgerton
Written by Mark Boal
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow
Rated R - Violence, language, torture
Running Time: 157 Minutes

On September 11, 2001, a terrorist attack engineered by Osama bin Laden took the lives of thousands of American citizens. For the next decade, the CIA searched the ends of the earth for him, following up every lead, no matter how small or vague.

"Zero Dark Thirty" is the (fictionalized) story of that manhunt. Maya (Jessica Chastain) is a new CIA agent assigned to Pakistan, investigating something called the Saudi Group, which may have helped fund the attacks. Her partner, Dan (Jason Clarke) brings her in on an interrogation on her first day. Days and weeks pass as Dan tries every trick in the book to get what he wants out of the prisoner, until Maya suggests that they simply lie to him and catch him in a trick. Suddenly, she has a solid lead: a man named Abu Ahmed who may be the courier for Osama bin Laden.  But finding Abu Ahmed proves to be more difficult than originally thought.

Years pass and the leads dry up, Abu Ahmed may even be dead. But Maya continues to believe that Ahmed is, in fact, alive and the key to finding bin Laden. Then comes her big break: Abu Ahmed has been found, and better yet, he leads them to a house in Pakistan that seems very, very secret...

"Zero Dark Thirty" is not a film you are meant to enjoy. It is not a rousing action picture, nor is it a jingoistic rah-rah kill-all-the-ay-rabs piece. It is a slow, methodical procedural about finding the modern world's most notorious terrorist. It does not focus on the personal lives of its characters, it focuses only on the search, and the resulting raid on bin Laden's compound in Pakistan.

The film covers the span of a decade, opening with a chilling 9-1-1 recording from inside the Twin Towers and ending with Maya returning to the US from Pakistan following the raid. Her team members and bosses come and go, there are even different presidential administrations, but the one thing that remains the same throughout the film is Maya's dedication, even obsession, with finding bin Laden.

When we first meet Maya, her bosses describe her as a "killer," but she at first balks at the sight of Dan torturing his suspect. But she steels herself, and tells the man he can help himself by talking. During early meetings with the team, she seems reluctant to voice her opinions, which are quickly shot down by the other, more experienced members. But as the years pass, Maya becomes more determined and even bullish in her search. By the time she describes herself as "the motherfucker who found the house" to the director of the CIA (James Gandolfini), Maya (and Chastain's performance) has almost completely transformed.

We never see her personal life, beyond a couple of scenes in her Pakistan apartment. But these are meant to illustrate that Maya has no personal life, which she herself confesses to the director later in the film. "What else have you done for us?" he asks. "Nothing," she replies. That's both a comment on Maya as a character, and on the film.

"Zero Dark Thirty" is engrossing, and doesn't feel nearly as long as its running time suggests. In fact, I had to double check that number on two websites to make sure. It's a mystery that unravels at a very deliberate pace, culminating in the famous raid. The raid itself is much like the rest of the film, a careful surgical strike.  This is not where the film unleashes in Hollywood-style bravado. Much of the raid is quiet, and the team only fires a few shots whenever necessary. But it is also brutal - the team fires shots into bodies that are already down, even in front of frightened women and children.

There are parts of "Zero Dark Thirty" that are difficult to watch, as such. The stark, surprising nature of the violence makes it feel more brutal. The fact that the film isn't softened by typical Hollywood action tropes makes it harsher, jolting.  "Zero Dark Thirty" is not a film you are meant to enjoy. But it will still suck you in.