Kathryn Bigelow's Oscar contender, Zero Dark Thirty, is an exhausting and exacting crime procedural about the hunt for terrorist Osama bin Laden. It is both plodding and a work of cinematic genius.
With its grim subject matter, its exacting accumulation of detail, its muddle of facts, theories and events, and its epic length at two hours and 37 minutes, Zero Dark Thirty may simultaneously bore, repulse and enthrall viewers.
As she did in her Oscar-winning Iraq war thriller, The Hurt Locker, director Bigelow engages her characters in a reality-based story that takes a quasi-documentary approach. But this is still a work of fiction. Actors play characters speaking written dialogue in an invented drama set against reality. History may record different facts and emphasize the efforts of different people.
Bigelow works again with screenwriter Mark Boal, her collaborator on The Hurt Locker. They were actually planning an alternative film on bin Laden. Then he was killed on May 2, 2011, in his secret compound in Pakistan by a team of U.S. Navy SEALs working in coordination with the CIA. The filmmakers suddenly changed gears and reworked their meticulous research. The result is Zero Dark Thirty, named for a military term applied to thirty minutes past midnight.
As a procedural, Bigelow and Boal show their version of the 10 years spent tracking bin Laden after the tragic events of 9/11. Zero Dark Thirty is episodic and essentially plotless. Instead, we loosely follow the efforts of one CIA intelligence agent from the day she first arrives on the job to the day she returns after the death of bin Laden.
This agent is played brilliantly by a bona fide star, Jessica Chastain, who brings enormous empathy and intelligence to the character. Her dogged pursual of one theory about bin Laden eventually leads to the success of the mission. At the end, she sheds tears for an entire nation. Chastain's stand-out performance is supported by an excellent ensemble, including Jason Clarke and Joel Edgerton. James Gandolfini plays Leon Panetta, U.S. Secretary of Defense and one of the few real-life people depicted.
The astonishing thing about Bigelow's filmmaking is that she hooks us into this complex story even though we know exactly how it ends. The film humanizes news reports. That includes shocking re-enactments of the torture of terrorist suspects. Shocking because of the barbarism.
It is also shocking because the filmmakers take no moral stand. Hence the socio-political accusations that Bigelow and Boal are pro-torture. In fact, they take no moral stand on anything here. All events are presented without obvious bias. So the torture sequences, as horrific as they may be, are presented without prejudice for others to debate.
The film also demonstrates that pre-election claims that Zero Dark Thirty would serve as propaganda are bogus. No politician, including President Barak Obama, is an important player here. In a parallel tempest, investigations so far have given the lie to accusations that U.S. intelligence services leaked sensitive classified information to Bigelow.
In the end, you must embrace the film on its own ground. It is not history, although it is about historical events. It has its flaws as storytelling. But, as pure filmmaking, as a dramatic action thriller, Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty is astonishing.