Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Rating: R. Running Time: 2 hours 37 min.
Stars: Jessica Chastain, Joel Edgerton
From the director of the award-winning The Hurt Locker comes this engrossing, thrilling film torn straight from the pages of modern history. While The Hurt Locker examined contemporary warfare through the eyes of an elite bomb squad deployed in Iraq, Zero Dark Thirty recounts the hunt for Osama bin Laden.
Kathryn Bigelow uses her can't-look-away docudrama style, using the perspective of the military intelligence officers who tracked down the terrorist's hideout and the Navy Seals assigned to enter his compound and kill him. Bigelow, 61, who won the best director Oscar for The Hurt Locker, shows us again that some people do their very best work after 50.
Partnering again with writer Mark Boal, Bigelow takes her time — perhaps too much, as the film could have benefited from some cutting in its first half — building the backstory. She introduces the top-secret CIA operatives who conduct our nation's intelligence business around the world, developing them as believable characters.
Jason Clarke (Public Enemies) is terrific as Dan, who's been in the business of interrogating and torturing military prisoners for far too long. And there's Maya, a rookie agent played by Jessica Chastain (The Help, The Tree of Life) who secretly recoils while her colleagues waterboard alleged Al-Qaida associates, but doesn't let her male colleagues see her flinch. (Bigelow's portrayal of the torture and intimidation of military prisoners may be controversial but it's a tangential aspect of the plot; Bigelow is not trying to push through propaganda here.) Chastain gives a solid performance as the workaholic loner whose character becomes increasingly laser-focused on a thread of evidence in which her counterparts seem uninterested — one that ultimately leads to bin Laden's hideout in Pakistan.
Whether there really was one woman responsible for following the trail that led to bin Laden is unclear (Bigelow and Boal claim to have done extensive research in making the film) but it makes no difference. We have too few heroines in our world, so it is inspiring to see a woman in this role. Dramatic liberties notwithstanding, Bigelow gives us an authentic, up-close look at international intelligence in this era of terror, and that makes Zero Dark Thirty a valuable work of history on film, right up there with Steven Spielberg's Lincoln.
The last 30 minutes are devoted to re-creating the raid on bin Laden's compound, and every second of the action is riveting. The helicopter flight carrying the Seals from a U.S. Navy base in Afghanistan over the mountains into Pakistan will make your heart thump. As the soldiers invade the safe house, blasting locks and blowing through security gates, Bigelow, with her night-vision cameras and a cinematography team led by Greig Fraser (Snow White and the Huntsman), offers edge-of-your-seat suspense that's worth every cent of the price of admission.
In the end, it is a surprise to see bin Laden's corpse look so small. Perhaps that was Bigelow's intent: Osama bin Laden may have been a big threat, but, in death, he was just one little man.