‘Zero Dark Thirty’: A force to reckon with

December 19, 2012

You’ve no doubt heard about a little movie called “Zero Dark Thirty,” which suddenly is the controversial odds-on Oscar favorite.

The controversy has to do with a couple of scenes of torture – or “harsh interrogation techniques,” as the Orwellian Bush-era new-speak had it. They occur early in the film, involving water-boarding, sleep deprivation, humiliation and the like. It’s a highly unpleasant moment – for the audience, as well as, obviously, the person being abused and questioned.

The nay-sayers posit that, because director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal don’t have someone say, “Torture? My God – what in God’s name are you doing?” – the scenes amount to a tacit approval of the practice, if not an outright endorsement.

Which is, of course, crap.

“Zero Dark Thirty” shows torture for what it is – a brutal, barbaric and generally ineffective way to gather intelligence. But the filmmakers allow the viewer to make the moral determination for himself. No doubt, just as any thinking person would be repulsed by those scenes, there are those who will watch it and say, “Kid’s stuff – they should have done more.”

All of which misses the point. “Zero Dark Thirty” isn’t a movie about torture. It’s a tense, dramatic and lean film, which is a surprising thing to say about a movie with a near-three-hour running time. That’s where that Oscar-favorite business (based on a landslide of critical awards) comes from.

Bigelow and Boal build their story around a lone CIA analyst, Maya (Jessica Chastain), who is brought in by another CIA operative, Dan (Jason Clarke), to help with the hunt for bin Laden. They’re first seen in those uncomfortable opening sequences, working over a suspect for information about the location of Osama bin Laden (or Usama, because they routinely refer to him as “UBL”).

History tells us that the Bush administration took its eye off the ball and let bin Laden escape after pinning him down in the Tora Bora region before launching the unnecessary war on Iraq. The trail has gone cold, but Maya is like a dog with a bone she won’t give up.

What follows is a procedural, in which she pulls at different strings in the loosely knit al-Qaeda fabric, trying to tease loose the strand that ties to bin Laden. The one lead she keeps chasing involves a courier who, she is convinced, works personally for UBL. That eventually leads her to Abbottabad, Pakistan, and the complex where Seal Team Six finally cornered and killed this century’s premier bogeyman.

Boal’s script is terse, sometimes witty (while never light-hearted), always gritty. And when Bigelow goes in for the kill – literally and metaphorically – with the attack on the Abbottabad complex, you know you’re in the hands of a master. There’s not an ounce of fat on the entire sequence – just a superbly shot setpiece that puts you right into the action, while forcing you to hold your breath from the time the night-vision goggles go on.

There are so many good things about this film – one of the best of the year – that it’s easy to overlook its centerpiece: the performance by Jessica Chastain as Maya. The quiet, occasionally explosive center of the story, Chastain builds upon the amazing impression she made in her break-out year of 2011. Her intensity, her carefully masked vulnerability, her passion and frustration – all come through her flashing eyes and the hard set of her lovely jaw. She’s not an action hero in the conventional sense, but she’s definitely the engine that drives this film.

“Zero Dark Thirty” is outstanding filmmaking by a director who proves that “The Hurt Locker,” one of the tensest films of the past decade, was not the culmination of her talent, but the tip of the iceberg. It’s a companion piece that raises the stakes while gripping you in an unbreakable hold.

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