Movie Review: “Zero Dark Thirty”

Movies based on actual events are hit-or-miss to say the least. Even more worrisome is when the audience is reminded of the “true story” with an opening title card. How much of Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty” is based on solid fact, I do not know, but at least it has the regard to specify that much of what it contains is based on eyewitness accounts. That’s good enough for me, because what could have easily been a sensationalized account of the manhunt for Osama bin Laden emerges instead as a meticulously paced exploration of the investigative work that led to one of the most top-secret raids in history.

“Zero Dark Thirty” is a bold and harrowing procedural that easily sits among the very best films of 2012.

“Zero Dark Thirty” begins with a black screen accompanied by audio recordings of 911 calls made from victims inside the twin towers on 9/11. This is a brave and haunting way to begin because it helps the audience recall exactly where they were on that day. It may also help prepare the audience for the film’s depiction of torture, which has caused a great deal of controversy. Make no mistake, the scenes of torture are intense, but not graphic. They are included because they almost certainly must have occurred, but seem to have been carried out as a desperate measure to stop further acts of terror. To say that “Zero Dark Thirty” is “pro-torture” is an empty-headed criticism because the vital piece of information that drives the rest of the narrative is given up in a moment of kindness and calm, with no violence involved at all.

The interrogations are carried out by Dan (Jason Clare), a seasoned CIA man who longs for a desk job back in Washington rather than the futility of questioning terrorists. Jessica Chastain, in yet another riveting performance, plays Maya, a new recruit whose first assignment is to assist Dan in getting information from Ammar (Reda Kateb). Ammar eventually gives them the name of a courier known only as “Abu Ahmed.” Subsequent suspected terrorists give varying information about the name, and while the name may be an alias, it becomes almost an obsession for Maya, who is convinced that he must be someone of vital importance. Maya’s lead is all but ignored by almost everyone who outranks her, including director of operations Joseph Bradley (Kyle Chandler) and an important division leader named George (Mark Strong). She stays persistent at great risk to herself and even through the loss of close colleagues. Chastain is masterful at portraying hopelessness in what seems a tireless effort.

At two hours and 38 minutes, this is a long film, but it’s wisely punctuated by chapters, giving it an almost segmented feel that allows us to process information as presented. That’s a smart move, because the screenplay by Mark Boal chronicles more than 10 years’ worth of information, culminating in the investigation and subsequent raid on a compound in Abbottabod, Pakistan. While the outcome of the raid is cemented in history, it is an absolutely breathless sequence, highlighted by accuracy and a refusal to submit to Hollywood action spectacle.

After “Argo,” “Zero Dark Thirty” is the second feature this year to showcase western politics and Middle East spy games. They are both nominated for best picture and each film has relevance, but this is certainly the more serious of the two. If left to lesser filmmakers, perhaps “Zero Dark Thirty” would have resembled a more liberally adapted version of events, but director Kathryn Bigelow seems to have worked diligently with Boal to present the events as honestly as possible. The actual mission is compelling enough by itself. That it makes for great cinema is completely rewarding. “Zero Dark Thirty” is a triumph.

Written by Mark Boal; directed by Kathryn Bigelow; starring Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler and Joel Edgerton; rated R; 158 minutes. Four stars out of four.