Zero Dark Thirty

Directed By: Kathryn Bigelow

Starring: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Joel Edgerton, Chris Pratt, Kyle Chandler, Edgar Ramirez, Mark Strong, Jennifer Ehle, Mark Duplass, Scott Adkins, and Taylor Kinney

History seems to be the predominant story of this awards season.  It's the history of our sixteenth president and his fight to pass the Thirteenth Amendment in Lincoln.  It's the history of six American diplomats making a fake movie to escape Iran in Argo.  It's the history of the most horrific natural disaster of modern times in The Impossible.  It's the history of justice being done on the world's most infamous terrorist Osama bin Laden in Zero Dark Thirty.  The killing of bin Laden is monumental, and The Hurt Locker director Kathryn Bigelow has opted to take on the daunting challenge of recreating modern history.  I’m happy to say that she strikes cinematic gold once again with this tense, brooding action thriller.

After the tragic loss of three thousand innocent souls in al-Qaeda's September 11th attacks on American soil, the CIA devotes a substantial number of resources and staff to finding notorious mass murderer Osama bin Laden.  Amongst the staff chasing this ghost terrorist, there is Maya (Jessica Chastain), an employee recruited right out of high school several years ago.  It's 2003, and Maya has been tasked to work with her colleague Dan (Jason Clarke) as he interrogates a detainee who has some affiliations with Saudi terrorists.  After days of unending torture of both his mind and body, this detainee eventually reveals the identity of Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, Osama bin Laden's courier.  This detainee has just revealed the lead Maya will be chasing for the next eight years in the greatest manhunt in history.

Zero Dark Thirty is a very uncomfortable movie, and that's exactly the way Kathryn Bigelow prefers it.  If you're just tossing back a few kernels of popcorn and casually watching this movie, there's something very wrong with you.  I honestly didn't laugh or even really crack a smile for the first two hours of the movie.  Zero Dark Thirty is a very intense thriller, and it certainly doesn't help that Bigelow is depicting water-boarding and other excruciating forms of torture.  Unlike a few members of Congress, however, I'm a big boy and can handle watching an artist broaching sensitive, mature topics.  Whether Kathryn Bigelow is dramatizing the facts or just telling it like it is, Zero Dark Thirty isn't a movie that's going to leave you with some warm fuzzy feeling about America and whatever our nation's defenders had to do to find and kill a terrorist with so much blood on his hands.

Kathryn Bigelow's invisible hand can be seen everywhere in Zero Dark Thirty yet nowhere at all. What she doesn't do is the telling indicator.  It's very evident that Bigelow is trying to tell a simple story of the search for bin Laden in this thriller.  There is no sappy pretense whatsoever in the movie.  Bigelow throws none of the expected emotional jabs.  Instead of showing archival footage of the September 11th attacks, Bigelow opts to give us a black screen and the audio of a 911 call on that painful day.  Instead of showing celebratory footage once the deed has been done and bin Laden is dead, Bigelow gives us a somber emotional release for the woman who found him.  All of this is meant to highlight a long, rough journey for one tough woman in her quest to find one of the disappeared ones.  Nothing else matters.

With Zero Dark Thirty, Jessica Chastain has just arrived at an inflection point in her career.  She's no longer just a top-billed supporting character in films like Tree of Life, The Help, and Coriolanus.  She's a leading lady.  She's the "motherf*cker" who found Osama bin Laden.  As CIA officer Maya, Chastain gives us a layered performance where her acting prowess is on full display.  In one scene, she can be tough as nails as she persistently pursues her leads.  In another, she can be a fragile shell of a human being trying to cope with the senselessness that symbolizes her everyday life in Pakistan.  In the role of Maya, Chastain gives a career-defining performance that stands as one of the best of 2012.

The supporting cast members in Zero Dark Thirty also bring quite a bit to the table.  As George, one of Maya's bosses, Mark Strong gives a fiery performance.  In his limited time on screen, Strong manages to berate CIA employees, challenge the White House staff, and deliver a few laughs.  As Leon Panetta, James Gandolfini injects the film with equal doses of humor and wisdom.  Chris Pratt does just the same as Navy SEAL Justin.

The most important scene in the entire film is the Navy SEALs' raid of the compound in Pakistan, and it's abundantly clear that a skilled director is at work here.  You can see it in the night vision used as a visual effect during the raid.  You can hear it in the subtle, low-key score from Alexandre Desplat.  You can feel it in the tension Bigelow builds through silence.  There’s really no fluff.  Bigelow just tells this rich story as is.  When she has you at the edge of your seat as helicopters loom and Navy SEALs lurk, Bigelow delivers a tense, nail-biting scene with surprisingly few bullets and an unsurprisingly high body count.  Based on everything we've all heard about the raid on that fateful night, Kathryn Bigelow gives us justice being done upon Osama bin Laden in an honest, accurate way.  As moviegoers, that’s all we can ask of her.

Zero Dark Thirty is a film that brilliantly dances with modern history.  With Kathryn Bigelow's light directorial touch and strong performances from her cast, the film details one of the most important moments in recent American history in a powerful way.  It's a way of honoring America's nameless heroes with art and telling a story that needed to be told.  Kathryn Bigelow has not just done justice to the story of the manhunt for bin Laden; she's put together an incredibly timely cinematic work that highlights the never-ending struggles of defending this nation.  Bigelow knows her tradecraft well.  Zero Dark Thirty gets a sober rating.  This gripping thriller is an experience not to be missed.