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Screens & Culture

'Zero Dark Thirty': A moody examination on the greatest manhunt in history

Photo: Courtesy photo, License: N/A

Courtesy photo


For over a decade, the war on terror has been relentlessly waged at any cost in lives, time, or resources, though as posited by director Kathryn Bigelow’s electrifying and gloomy Zero Dark Thirty, there has been no higher cost than the notion of liberty. While mostly fought in distant lands, this has always really been a war for the American soul and, as on the real battlefield, the final results in the spiritual realm are equally murky. 

Both a profound examination of the extent a nation will go to defend itself, and a sneaky bit of jingoistic, patriotic mythmaking, Zero Dark Thirty simultaneously celebrates and condemns its protagonist, a singularly obsessive C.I.A operative played with blistering intensity by Jessica Chastain. Recruited straight out of
high school, Maya is a singularly driven woman, a guided missile with only one target. We follow Maya from the early months after 9/11 until the fateful raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound.

Zero contains elements of many genres: it is a crime procedural, a character study, a civics lesson, an action movie and a revenge picture. There is also a strong whiff of torture porn, in extended sequences where veteran specialist Dan (in a brilliant turn by Jason Clarke) subjects a detainee (Reda Kateb) to beatings, near drowning, hunger, claustrophobia, humiliation, and sleep deprivation via the playing of ear-bleeding speed metal.

Chastain looks on horrified, but stifles her objections when she thinks the methods are working. Indeed these “enhanced interrogation” procedures are shown to be effective, at least up until a point; Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal hedge their bets by having the key revelation come through a bit of trickery, though one that wouldn’t have worked if the suspect hadn’t been pushed past the breaking point. Torture also seems to have taken its toll on the torturer, as a disgusted Dan retreats to a desk job. Maya presses on, as always, even though most of her bosses back home seem to have lost faith in the cause.  

Looking at Chastain’s ginger locks, full lips, and delicately porcelain complexion, you’d be hard-pressed to imagine a lovelier face involved in a nastier business. Some have speculated that the same real life person provided the template for both Maya and Claire Dane’s brilliantly unstable agent on the hit series Homeland, and perhaps they are both personifications of our deepest fantasies that the people that do our dirty work always look gorgeous and clean while doing it.

The film is populated by an impressive ensemble of quality character actors, many of whom just sort of shuffle through in a blur of neckties and coffee mugs. Among them, James Gandolfini (The Sopranos), known for imparting menace, is a weirdly comforting presence as someone who is not named but clearly meant to be C.I.A director Leon Panetta. This revolving door underscores the impersonal nature of bureaucracy and the baroque rituals of government that, while familiar to us, would be as alien to our enemies as some of their most cherished religious rites to us.

The least conflicted, and most openly heroic participants, are the SEAL team members who approach their job with both a relaxed professionalism and a sort of jocular locker room bravado. This is embodied by Chris Pratt, best known for playing a loveable goofball on Parks and Recreation. The raid itself is brilliantly realized, and not a whit less compelling for the outcome being known already. 

Zero Dark Thirty mingles excitement and revulsion, though Bigelow understands, first and foremost, that there is great romance in vengeance — even if the resolution brings only a sense of relief and not exaltation.  

Zero Dark Thirty

★★★ ½ (out of 5 stars)

Dir. Kathryn Bigelow; writ. Mark Boal; feat. Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Mark Strong, Joel Edgerton, Chris Pratt (R)

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