¨I’m going to smoke everyone involved in the op and then I’m going to kill Osama bin Laden.¨
The passion, determination, and single-minded pursuit of a female CIA operative to hunt down and kill Osama bin Laden was the film that the Academy Award winning writer and director decided to pursue after their success in The Hurt Locker. Zero Dark Thirty is so intense and suspenseful that you just want Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal to continue working together forever. They make other modern war films look really bad when held up to the standards of their recent work together. Bigelow has developed such a craft and expertise as a filmmaker that during some moments of the film (especially the final 25 minute raid) you feel like you are watching a documentary of actual footage of the manhunt instead of a fictional film. She is as passionate about her work as her lead character is obsessed with hunting down this man. We can’t argue that Bigelow benefits from Boal’s extraordinary script, which manages to reduce a decade long hunt into 150 minutes of detailed procedural work without taking political sides or focusing on revenge nonsense. It just takes such a realist approach that you never feel manipulated by Bigelow which would have been easy to do considering the subject matter. This is in my opinion the best film dealing with pos 9-11 events thanks to Bigelow’s ability to remain emotionally detached and focus on her craft. Under the weight of the heavy subject matter, she somehow manages to make this film more about a character study than an actual manhunt. There is really one main character in this film as the rest of characters come and go, and without delving into her past and focusing on the decade long pursuit of bin Laden the story centers around her, and it is a very interesting psychological study of what motivates her. Jessica Chastain is just so fascinating in this film, that she single handedly carries this movie and gives the best performance of her career.
The film opens in black with several voiceovers of calls from the World Trade center during the 9-11 attacks. It is a very emotional opening scene as we later are introduced to the main character, Maya (Jessica Chastain), who has been sent to Pakistan by the CIA to hunt down bin Laden. The first place we see her is in an interrogation room where her partner Dan (Jason Clarke) is torturing a terrorist prisoner in order to find information of the whereabouts of bin Laden. Maya isn’t amused by the torture that is going on and doesn’t participate, but she is willing to accept any means necessary in order to unlock the truth and hunt down the man she’s obsessed with finding. Of all the prisoners they have interrogated there seems to be one man that is mentioned by everyone: Abu Ahmed. Maya is convinced that this man is bin Laden’s personal courier and that if she can locate him then she will locate his leader. Her boss, Joseph Bradley (Kyle Chandler) isn’t convinced about this theory, but Maya is determined to pursue this lead. The entire film is a very detailed procedural drama of how Maya follows one lead after another (with several false and disappointing leads along the way) until she is able to locate the whereabouts of bin Laden. Her next mission is to convince the authorities that bin Laden is actually hidden in that complex without having definite proof, but her certainty ends up convincing the leaders to send the US Navy SEALS team led by Patrick (Joel Edgerton) to attack the compound and kill bin Laden.
There were a great amount of talented actors cast in this film such as James Gandolfini, Mark Strong, Edgar Ramirez, Mark Duplass, Frank Grillo, and Chris Platt, but they had very few scenes and the entire film centered on Jessica Chastain. She deserves an Oscar for her performance here, and Mark Boal deserves one for Best Screenplay. The entire film is a character study on Maya as her entire life revolves around catching this man. We see it in her eyes from the very opening scene to the very end where instead of experiencing joy for the success she had, all we can see is a sigh of relief. What comes next for Maya? She doesn’t even know as she was so focused and determined on one thing only. I love Bigelow’s style and how she downsizes the entire war and centers everything on one central character. Just like she did in The Hurt Locker where the focus is on Renner’s character and how the adrenaline of war has become an addiction for him; now the focus is on Chastain who is very driven and obsessed with accomplishing her goal. There is not anything else on her mind; it’s as if she lives for one specific purpose. In the end you don’t know if you should cheer for her or feel sorry that her work is done. In a way I felt Bigelow’s approach to the events that led to bin Laden’s death to be very powerful; and it has raised a lot of discussions about torture, but that is exactly what a great film should do: bring up conversations and make us question things at times. After a decade long manhunt, was it really a triumph to kill bin Laden? Was it worth a celebration? Does the end justify the means? Without taking sides Bigelow makes us think about these issues and that is what good movies do for the viewers.