Perhaps the genuis of Kathryn Bigalow is that she can make her movies tremendously exciting and engaging while still allowing them to be a Rorschach test of audience attitudes about her subject matter.
Zero Dark Thirty is no exception. A tense, gripping, and well-made look at the hunt for and raid against Osama bin Laden, the film purports to be based on first hand accounts of the happenings. I can add little to the excellent review by Paul Miller, a veteran of our war in Afghanistan and a former CIA analyst helping in the hunt for Osama bin Laden.
Seriously, read his review.
The always excellent Jessica Chastain stars as a young but driven CIA operative newly arrived in Iraq. Chastain is almost too pretty for the hard-nosed role, but manages to overcome her beauty to create a character one both admires and fears. With no life but the hunt and no passion but her job, she frets, worries, and obsesses over each and every clue that might lead to Big Daddy Bin Laden. More than anything, she feels it in her gut. Tiny clues irritate her like sand in the eye over the course of years. She cannot let go, even in the face of unsupportive bosses or an apathetic Presidential administration.
In the third act, the film morphs into a fast-paced action segment as the raid unfolds. Bigalow is in her element here, tension mixed with subdued emotion and anticlimatic outcomes. In the heat of the moment, soldiers stand mentally outside themselves, watching themselves take out America’s most hated enemy and feeling their own lack of jubilation or sense of momentousness. The glory will come later. In the moment, the team is infused with professionalism and a surreal sense of normalcy.
In the end, death comes with no fireworks or heroic last stands, but with sudden silence.
Bigalow, for all the controversy she’s receiving over the waterboarding scene, deserves credit for her sensitive treatment of someone who deserves no respect, Osama bin Laden. She does not shy away from showing his death, but certainly avoids the jubilation or gloating that would be the hallmark of a lesser director, treating his body with careful avoidance. She clearly made the movie with a global audience in mind and Americans need not cringe thinking of how its tone will play in Europe or the Middle East.
In fact, the movie is very good and a good ambassador for America. Bigalow makes a movie full of nuance and understated emotion that asks all the questions but answers none of them. Some of the controversy comes from this insistence by Bigalow that audiences think for themselves. She neither condones nor condemns the waterboarding and other techniques that some view as unacceptable torture, something that seems to have the anti-interrogation, anti-war forces in a frenzy. They demand a heavy handed denunciation.
The movie is a gripping, fascinating ride through the world of those who serve on the front lines of information gathering and intelligence work. Their lives are a series of videotapes in small rooms, files on computers, voice recordings, interspersed with the threat of violence that infuses those prosaic data points with meaning.
Neither does Bigalow forget or minimize what is being fought. The movie opens chillingly, with disembodied voices crying out panic, fear, and love: The last calls of the victims of 9/11. As the intelligence agents and soldiers fight on, they are horrified and frustrated by the attacks they could not stop: The London bombings of 2005, attacks against Western targets in the Middle East, and most immediate to the film, the suicide bomber who killed agents in 2009 at Khowst, a CIA base.
While the controversy rages, the movie stands as a tribute to Americans who quietly and doggedly work impossibly faint leads to prevent future attacks and to seek justice for past attacks. One cannot leave the theater without increased respect for them.
In that, as well as in creating good entertainment, Kathryn Bigalow succeeds very well. This is one of the best movies of the year.