Film Score: Alexandre Desplat Cinematography: Greig Fraser
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Reda Kateb and Jennifer Ehle
Zero Dark Thirty was director Kathryn Bigelow’s second foray into the morass of Middle Eastern military conflicts after winning Oscar gold four years earlier with The Hurt Locker. Unlike many films of this kind based on non-fiction best-sellers, the screenplay was written by Bigelow and Mark Boal who had just finished writing a script for a film based on the initial search for bin Laden right after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The project had been green-lit when they heard the news that bin Laden had been killed and immediately set about retooling their work, re-interviewing people who had helped with the original script. One of the surprising things they learned was how many women worked on the intelligence gathering, and so they developed a composite character in Maya Lambert who would be their hero in the film.
The story begins two years after the 9/11 attacks, with the capture of Reda Kateb as a high-level operative in the Al-Qaeda network, and he would become the focal point of the information used to piece together the whereabouts of the leader. Jason Clarke is the operative assigned to interrogate and torture Kateb for information. Jessica Chastain is the new operative on the block, at first repulsed by the enhanced interrogation techniques, but soon inured to them as her focus shifts to sifting through the mountains of interrogation transcripts for information in order to piece together a trail that will ultimately lead to retribution for the attacks. She eventually hears one name over and over, that of bin Laden’s currier and starts to track him down through the interrogations. But there are setbacks along the way, and even deaths. Ultimately her work leads right to bin Laden’s house and yet, without confirmation, no one in Washington has the courage to act on it.
Jessica Chastain, who had been very effective in the remake of The Debt and as the racist housewife in The Help, has a certain fragile toughness here that is impressive. At first she seems completely out of her element, but her strength shows through in the end. She’s helped in her quest by CIA operative Jason Clarke, who is skilled not only in the interrogation torture techniques but at the psychology of the torture. Chastain quickly catches on, however, and becomes good at it herself. Jennifer Ehle is one of the friends she makes at the Pakistan Embassy, and Kyle Chandler is the station chief who takes a while to come around to believing her when she gets onto the target. Joel Edgerton and Chris Pratt are two of the navy SEALs who, in the final act, bring the film to its conclusion.
The thing that is most evident in watching the film is, first, the lack of politics exhibited by those on the ground doing the work. The have objectives they are working for, and protecting the homeland is chief among them. The second thing is the decided lack of jingoism. Bigelow and Boal’s script downplays the idea of revenge or that somehow there would be a “mission accomplished” banner rolled out at the end. Ultimately the death of bin Laden was a statement to the world, and especially to terrorists, that those responsible will eventually pay. They will not be forgotten, and will not be lost amid current travails. The film was nominated for an Academy Award last year, but lost out to Argo, a story of earlier terrorism in Iran. Nevertheless, Zero Dark Thirty is a brilliant film by a tremendous filmmaker who just happens to be a woman, and is another episode in a largely unknown military chapter in U.S. history.