Movies: "Zero Dark Thirty" | Arts & Culture

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Movies: "Zero Dark Thirty"
Movies: "Zero Dark Thirty"


It’s been playing in selected cities for weeks now, but Kathryn Bigelow’s riveting Osama Bin Laden manhunt movie is finally here.  


Bigelow and her screenwriter Mark Boal won Oscars for their 2008 Iraq War movie “The Hurt Locker.”  “Zero Dark Thirty” and Boal are up for Oscars this time around, but Bigelow (whose earlier movies include “Near Dark,” “Point Break” and  “Strange Days”) was shut out of the director’s nomination for some strange reason.


That may be in part due to the troubling and controversial first third of the movie, in which we witness the prolonged “enhanced interrogation” (i.e., torture) of an Al Qaeda member at the brutal hands of a nice-looking young American (Aussie Jason Clarke, the almost monosyllabic bootlegger in “Lawless”).  


Looking on with us is a mysterious figure in a black balaclava.  When the interrogators go outside for a smoke break, that turns out to be a woman, the CIA agent known only as Maya (Jessica Chastain, also from “Lawless,” as well as “The Help”).  She’s the dramatic and emotional center of the movie, her character based on an actual agent.  


The torture seems to go on forever, with the prisoner finally revealing a possible link to Osama Bin Laden (“UBL” in CIA lingo).  The problem here is that former intelligence agents (and some members of Congress) are positive that “enhanced interrogation” methods played no role whatsoever in the manhunt, even though the movie claims to have been based on interviews with many of the participants.


The movie continues over eight years, in which we witness several bloody Al Qaeda attacks, with bombs suddenly (and loudly) blowing people away but no scenes of CIA drones doing the same to victims in Afghanistan or Pakistan.  All the while, Maya continues her single-minded quest to uncover the identity of the courier who can lead the agency to UBL.  But not everyone in the agency is on her wavelength.


Maya’s boss at the Pakistan CIA headquarters (Britain’s Mark Strong, always powerful) makes it crystal clear to his agents: “Do your jobs and bring me people to kill.”  Maya voices a similar wish after several of her colleagues are killed: “I’m going to smoke everyone involved in this op and then I’m gonna kill Osama Bin Laden.”


The movie picks up considerable interest when Maya finally pinpoints the courier’s phone calls, and the agency tracks him to a certain compound in Abottobad, Pakistan.  And when SEAL Team Six finally conducts that fateful raid in May of 2011, Bigelow’s skill as an action director reaches new heights.  It’s shot largely in night-vision green, with no background music (the prolific Alexandre Desplat handles the rest of the soundtrack), and the tension is palpable even though everyone in the theater knows how it will end.


“Zero Dark Thirty” (the title is military slang for 12:30 AM) is a powerful, if one-sided, look at America’s war on terrorism in the years since 9/11.  But it is flawed by its positive take on torture and, more importantly, by its unsympathetic characters.  Maya is a driven woman, but she has no life whatsoever outside her commitment to tracking down USB.  Her agency colleagues are similarly one-dimensional, with the possible exception of another female agent (Jennifer Ehle) who makes one feeble stab at befriending Maya.  James Gandolfini makes a brief appearance as the CIA Director, and delivers a more human performance than most of the agents under his command.  Bigelow is great at the technical aspects of counterterrorism (stealth helicopters and the like) but misses the human side.


The colorful location cinematography, shot in Jordan and India, is by Greig Fraser (“Snow White and the Huntsman”).  


“Zero Dark Thirty” is rated R for gritty violence and some language.  I give it a B.