A conundrum: how do you compress ten years of life into two and a half hours? Ten years of anticipation, frustration and dissatisfaction? Ten years of opening the newspaper, of turning on the television, and seeing nothing but posturing and vain promises? And how do you capture that moment when all of a sudden, that ten years is finally over, and that thing you had given up waiting for arrives, unexpected and perhaps even unwanted?
That’s the task that Kathryn Bigelow and her co-producer and screenwriter Mark Boal set for themselves with “Zero Dark Thirty,” a film that seeks to chronicle the ten-year intelligence manhunt for Osama bin Laden following the 9/11 attacks. It is a remarkable piece of filmmaking, and I will not even discuss the absurd notion that it is “pro-torture;” such continued insistence that depiction is tantamount to endorsement is not only unfounded but dangerous. Yet, though the film’s divisive reception may have you thinking that there are only two camps to this fight, my positive reaction to “Zero Dark Thirty” does not come without its share of qualms and reservations (I suppose in that way it perhaps is a perfect evocation of that uneasy jumble of emotions that I went through on May 2, 2011).
After an effective sucker-punch of an opening – a black screen overlaid with audio from the cell phone calls of passengers aboard the hijacked planes on 9/11 – Bigelow dives right into the investigation for bin Laden, as a CIA agent (Australian actor Jason Clarke, last seen in “Lawless”) tortures an al Qaeda operative at an undisclosed location. He is joined by a fresh recruit, Maya (Jessica Chastain), who appears to be on her first assignment since joining the agency, although the details of her personal life are left purposefully obscure. “Zero Dark Thirty” is the ultimate procedural, completely uninterested in the background or motivation behind its characters – Boal’s screenplay handles the what and the how with exquisite detail, but not the why. What little we learn about Maya as she doggedly pursues her rapidly waning leads come from Chastain’s remarkably steeled performance.
It’s this aspiration to journalism that is simultaneously the strength and greatest flaw of “Zero Dark Thirty.” The thrill of the film comes from watching the pieces slowly fall into place, as information regarding one of bin Laden’s couriers leads Maya ever closer to that compound in Pakistan, but one can’t help but think that, in assembling the evidence into such a tight, propulsive package, something crucial is being left out. If this were a film less self-consciously interested in presenting “the truth,” this wouldn’t be problematic – “Argo” and “The Social Network,” for instance, are great examples of films that twisted the constructed nature of their narrative in a manner that cleverly complemented their subject matter. But by insistently calling “Zero Dark Thirty” a piece of reporting, Bigelow and Boal (along with scores of critics) left the door wide open for attacks on its factual elisions. The critics who are now backpedaling and trying to defend “Zero Dark Thirty” as a work of art are pitifulling trying to have their cake and eat it too.
That’s a shame, for if the film had simply been embraced as a superb technical thriller from the start, we might have been able to appreciate “Zero Dark Thirty” as a moment-to-moment masterpiece on the level of Paul Greengrass’ “United 93.” And we can still do that as individual viewers, even if the cultural dialogue around the film has become rather more complicated. Whatever your take on the the film’s torture scenes, they are presented with an admirable bluntness – the camera itself registers no difference between these shocking images and the more pedestrian shots of Maya pounding away at her keyboard. Bigelow seems to be saying that all of this – the detective work, the technology, the abuse, the wiretapping, the human ingenuity – taken together, is what it took to find bin Laden. Accept it or don’t.
But the director outdoes herself with the raid by Seal Team Six on bin Laden’s compound, a virtuosic montage of professionalism on a cinematic par with the bank robbery from “Rififi.” The exquisite low-light cinematography and propulsive editing of this extended sequence is undoubtedly one of the most remarkable accomplishments in film this year, and sets up the best shot of the film, in which the camera lingers, ever so slightly, on a patch of blood staining the carpet – all that remains of one of the most notorious real-life villains in American history. It forms a perfect pair with the final shot of the film, an even more drawn-out close-up of Maya’s face as she heads home after finally accomplishing her life’s work. If Chastain wins an Oscar, it is this scene that will earn it for her: a swirling maelstrom of elation, guilt, relief and uncertainty kept just below the surface.
But even if it has a very strong sense of the conclusion of the bin Laden saga – the sudden adrenaline-soaked shock of the raid, followed by the weary misgivings of the aftermath – “Zero Dark Thirty” never quite gets the feeling right for everything that came before. It is, in a way, too gripping. The creeping frustration of failure and inaction never has time to seep in through the barrage of edge-of-your-seat set-pieces. We are informed of the passage of years over title cards, and Maya grows from hesitant rookie to a cussing old hand, but we are never lacking a sense of purpose. In Maya’s head there is no room for self-doubt.
It is assuredly thanks to Maya’s real-life counterpart and people like her that bin Laden was finally tracked down, and that’s a fine story to tell. But it’s not the whole story.
Still playing in theaters.
Verdict: 3 1/2 out of 4 stars