"Zero Dark Thirty" refers to a military term for 30 minutes past midnight, a dark hour indeed.
In the remarkable new film tracking the hunt for Osama bin Laden, there are many dark hours for us to consider, and many intelligence efforts operating in the shadows.
These range from the horrors of 9/11 and wars on multiple fronts to "enhanced interrogation techniques" and the finality of "getting our man."
‘ZERO DARK THIRTY’
Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke,
Kyle Chandler, Joel Edgerton
Cinemark Tulsa, Promenade,
Cinemark Broken Arrow, Starworld 20,
RiverWalk, Owasso, Eton Square, Sand
2 hours, 37 minutes
R (strong violence including brutal
disturbing images, and for language)
(on a scale of zero to
Director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal, Oscar-winners for 2009's best-picture "The Hurt Locker," return to the war on terror to present a story based on the facts behind a decade-long manhunt.
The way in which they tell their story - in a form I would refer to as journalistic reality for cinema - ups the ante for viewers, who must search their personal morality meters by the conclusion and decide if the end result justified any compromises that were made in the name of seeking justice.
The story is focused on Maya, a young CIA operative whose entire career has been based on finding bin Laden. Jessica Chastain's performance is yet another astonishing achievement for the actress who you may not recognize if you've only seen her as a buxom blonde in "The Help."
She is in virtually every scene of the film, but we never quite know how Maya feels about anything beyond her passion for her mission.
Like a journalist writing an objective news story - or like a CIA spook - she doesn't tell us how she feels. During the first 20 or so minutes of the film, which can feel like a "how to torture suspects" tutorial at times, she expresses no moral judgment.
Instead, Boal - who was a freelance journalist embedded with troops in Iraq - and Bigelow dramatize the facts of the treatment of prisoners at places like Guantanamo in the manner of a journalist writing for his or her audience.
These are the facts. It's part of the story. Torture happened.
But rather than having his characters go into preachy morality mode (like so many lesser films) to say something like "Can't you see what we're doing to these people is wrong?" Boal instead presents these events in a way that forces the audience to consider how they feel about such treatment.
Is what they are doing to these people wrong? That's the question some moviegoers will be asking themselves as they squirm in their seats during some intense scenes.
This style is consistent throughout the picture and part of the genius of this important film, as we follow Maya's relentless search for clues that often put her in harm's way of terrorists (the 2008 Islamabad Marriott Hotel bombing, the 2009 Camp Chapman attack).
More often we find her following leads to dead ends in attempting to track Abu Ahmed, the personal courier to bin Laden whose discovery eventually leads to the compound that Navy SEAL Team Six raids.
Maya is so single-minded - friendless, with few social graces, hyper and polarizing - but she is ultimately the audience's lifeline to this mission. Years after 9/11, she is the one who - like most Americans, from a symbolic standpoint - is still pushing to find bin Laden when many colleagues have moved on, resigned to the belief that they will never find him or that finding him no longer matters because others have taken his place as a figurehead.
Chastain is fascinating as a woman who's both haunted by her mission and driven to complete it but also so secretive that she can't give much away about herself or her motivations.
The actress must express herself through physical cues that tell us a little something about her character, but she ultimately remains as much a mystery as the real-life female CIA operative on whom she is based.
Although Chastain's character development is guarded, it is far more advanced than any other player in "Zero Dark Thirty." The picture is lessened by developing only one other character - Jason Clarke as Dan, Maya's initial supervisor in the detainee program - who proves to be memorable over 157 minutes.
Bigelow and Boal still achieve the status of great political film, but "Zero Dark Thirty" is not as entertaining as the superior "Argo." Theirs is more a film to be appreciated than enjoyed.
We can appreciate moments like the 20-minute concluding raid on the bin Laden compound, which through the eyes of SEAL Team Six becomes a dance of nighttime shadows seen through green night-vision goggles.
It's as if the film combines the brains of Boal with the brawn of Bigelow. He provides the intelligent, complex, challenging story, and she films it with enough action and verve to make the story move in a swift, tense manner.
In an era filled with too many mindless attempts at film franchises, we can hope that Bigelow and Boal team up to challenge moviegoers for years to come.
Original Print Headline: Film brings hunt for bin Laden to life
Michael Smith 918-581-8479