“Zero Dark Thirty,” released on Jan. 11, delivers on massive expectations. It bristles and stings, refining the grinding tension that Best Picture winner “The Hurt Locker” from Kathryn Bigelow, SoA ‘81, nearly perfected.
Most films supply secure intervals in which the viewer can breathe before an actor is put in danger again. This film offers no such respite. It is a deftly executed cat-and-mouse game with little distinction between predator and prey.
When I first heard of this bin Laden film, I was very skeptical, expecting the usual quick cash-in, pro-America, gung-ho story. I was surprised when the film opened with a prisoner lying shirtless and weak before masked Americans. Chained up, stripped to his bare bones, and deprived of sleep by way of loud music, the prisoner agonizes through the first scenes, which move at an excruciatingly slow pace.
Mark Boal, who also wrote “The Hurt Locker,” simply sketches these vignettes and leaves any statement on the effectiveness of these actions up in the air. After a presidential change, Maya (Jessica Chastain), the woman behind the bin Laden hunt, is told, “You don’t want to be the last one holding the dog collar when the oversight committee comes.” She manages to get information in other ways, but it costs the CIA. The uncomfortable question of whether torture would have helped floats along the edge of this piece’s conscience.
Bigelow has a penchant for confronting you with an honest reality. I had actually thought that “The Hurt Locker,” a fictional film about an Iraqi bomb squad, was a documentary when I first saw it. “Zero Dark Thirty” could not fool me again, but the shaky handheld cameras lend just enough realism to make even the most cinematic sequences appear unnervingly human and flawed. Other films simply show bombs. In a scene in “Zero Dark,” the camera is caught in the blast, smashed to the ground in an explosion of flame, glass, and flailing bodies.
Chastain, whose character is based off of a real undercover agent, deserves to be a household acting name. Her tough, sometimes brazen, demeanor never detracts from her complete emotional availability. She is the engine that powers the rest of this movie, with her actions sending men scattering across the globe in cell-phone-tracking chess games and slick bribery. She is also the one who receives bad news, crumpled against the floor and visibly straining from the weight, but never broken.
The biggest strength of the powerful but understated score is when it cuts to silence. The viewer becomes eerily and keenly aware of every movement, breath, or footstep. In the inevitable raid scene, shot almost entirely in night vision, this technique is stretched out to perfection. The immersion in this world, with its unadulterated humanity and brutality, is unlike any other film. Never straying far from the records, this film makes us confront the post-9/11 age.
“Zero Dark Thirty” is playing at AMC Loews Lincoln Square 13 at Broadway and 68th Street.