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One thing’s for certain about director Kathryn Bigelow: she sure doesn’t take the easy path. Zero Dark Thirty, her hotly anticipated follow-up to her Oscar winner, The Hurt Locker, bucks convention by telling a story that is, in essence, entirely falling action. And it’s not just any story, either. In chronicling the path that led to the discovery of Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts and his death, Bigelow, teaming again with screenwriter Mark Boal, is telling the great story of the current millennium.
She does so painstakingly, with an eye on cutting-edge visual technique and an ear for realistic-sounding dramatic narrative. Zero begins on that still painful day, September 11, 2001, with a 911 caller in one of the World Trade Center towers. In the first example of how Bigelow and Boal eschew manipulation, the screen remains dark, the victim only heard. The nightmare images that continue to haunt us and define our time don’t belong in this film. They’re someone else’s story.
Using the fictional character of Maya, a soft-spoken but no-nonsense CIA operative brought to life by the translucent Jessica Chastain, Zero hones in on the techniques and people that went into the process of finding Public Enemy Number One (UBL, as he is often referred to in the movie). It starts with CIA vet Dan (Jason Clarke) interrogating and, sometimes, torturing hostages to procure information he obviously has about a bin Laden courier named Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti (Tushaar Mehra). Zero shifts its focus on Chastain’s frustrating path to bin Laden, fraught with false leads and red tape, not to mention actual life-threatening dangers.
Like Skyfall did earlier this fall, Boal posits that old Cold War tactics are no longer sufficiently effective for spies to gain intel and access sleeper cells, and Maya’s youth and more modern education are pivotal in her ability in the information age. The actress projects a weary but patient determinism as she goes up against top brass, including characters played by Kyle Chandler, Stephen Dillane, James Gandolfini, and Mark Strong. (As she did last year in Contagion, an American-accented Jennifer Ehle all but steals her scenes as a colleague out in the field). Zero, implicitly has as much to say about the way humans work in group environments as it does explicitly about why torture is a necessary evil. It’s about how important knowledge is for people, and how being silenced or ignored can be the greatest sin of all. And Bigelow fuses a master filmmaker’s craftsmanship with the same docu-theatrical sensibility that made All the President’s Men a riveter. This isn’t just celluloid journalism or a procedural; it’s substantive. Zero has thrilling moments of tension – drastically enhanced by the editing team of William Goldenberg and Dylan Tichenor – and quiet humane moments as well that add emotional texture and realism.
Zero is an epic tale, but one told with great economy. Perhaps too much so. Eventually, Maya is able to locate UBL’s hideaway compound, and I am still not sure the film actually shows how she came upon the location. But it doesn’t matter. At that point, what has come before in the film is a mere preamble to its raison d'être, which is the actual raid by Navy SEALs (embodied at the forefront by Joel Edgerton and Chris Pratt). This simulation is both real and fantastic, grainy and poetic all at the same time. Cinematographer Greig Fraser replicates the SEALs’ night-vision view, hued with greys and greens that suggest, as Bigelow did on Locker, both the excitement and danger of being on the frontline. There is an intimacy, a grace to this entire act at its most frenzied and at its stillest. Zero is a trenchant work that represents craftsmanship at its finest. It’s a story for our time that may just prove to be a story for all time.