The Zero Dark Thirty tweets as of 8:20 am Hanoi time are a high because they’re all declaring that Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal‘s 157-minute effort is a hardcore get-down thing with a strong, pared-to-the-bone female lead (Jessica Chastain‘s Maya) and a tough-as-nails approach that eschews the usual, expected patriotic rah-rah stuff that a less austere and sophisticated approach might have delivered.
Jessica Chastain in Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal’s Zero Dark Thirty.
I won’t be seeing ZDT until next Saturday afternoon, but it appears as if this story of how Osama bin Laden finally got his is for people who seriously loved the dry, down-to-it focus of United 93 (i.e., myself) and/or were too hip and demanding to fall for films like Act of Valor. This is where I live, what I like, what I respect. Eff that rah-rah noise.
Portions of Todd McCarthy‘s Hollywood Reporter enthusiastic review read as follows: “Whether you call it well informed speculative history, docu-drama recreation or very stripped down suspense filmmaking, Zero Dark Thirty matches form and content to pretty terrific ends. And yet [pic] will be tough for some viewers to take, not only for its early scenes of torture, including water boarding but due to its denial of conventional emotionalism and non-gung ho approach to cathartic revenge-taking.
McCarthy’s suspicion is that ZDT‘s “rigorous, unsparing approach will inspire genuine enthusiasm among the serious, hardcore film crowd more than with the wider public.”
“Even though it runs more than two-and-a-half hours, Zero Dark Thirty is so pared to essentials that even politics are eliminated,” McCarthy goes on. “There’s essentially no Bush or Cheney, no Iraq War, no Obama announcing the success of the May 2, 2011 raid on Bin Laden’s in-plain-sight Pakistani compound. [And yet] the film’s power steadily and relentlessly builds over its long course, to a point that is terrifically imposing and unshakable.”
McCarthy’s most eloquent phrasings address the way Maya is presented, the quality of Chastain’s performance and how ZDT “could well be the most impressive film Bigelow has made, as well as possibly her most personal, as one keenly feels the drive of the filmmaker channeled through the intensity of Maya’s character
“Chastain carries the film in a way she’s never been asked to do before,” he writes. “Denied the opportunity to provide psychological and emotional details for Maya, she nonetheless creates a character that proves indelible and deeply felt. The entire cast works in a realistic vein to fine effect.
“Similarly absent is any personal life for the single-minded heroine; when it’s suggested at one point that she might want to have a fling, she colorfully replies that she’s not a girl who does that sort of thing. The film does question whether she gives up some of her humanity to so selflessly dedicate herself to this sole professional aim, but seems to answer that, for some, this is what represents the essence of life; everything else is preparation and waiting.
“Given no backstory, links to the world outside the CIA or any interest in smalltalk or other subjects, Maya occasionally has a drink to unwind but otherwise seems entirely incapable of shutting down her laser-like focus of her obsession. She becomes tolerably friendly with a gregarious, chatty female colleague (the ever-wonderful Jennifer Ehle) but most of the time is the only female in the room; she knows when to hold her tongue and her frustrations are legion, but she also finds her moments to assert herself and speak out to superiors when she suspects her contributions are being ignored, due either to her rank or because she’s a woman.
“Much as she did with the equally tightly wound protagonist of The Hurt Locker, Bigelow sends Maya through a mine field, this time consisting of bureaucratic trip-wires as well as potentially fatal traps. The director also successfully creates a double-clad environment that is both eerie and threatening, that of the supposedly safe and protected enclaves of the CIA that exist within the larger context of the Muslim world. From very early on, Maya seizes on the idea that the way to eventually track down Bin Laden is to identify and follow his couriers, as they will inevitably one day reveal where the Al-Qaeda leader is hiding.
“As we know, she’s right, but it takes years for the tactic to pay off. Even once she and her cohorts track down the long-elusive Abu Ahmad, following his vehicle through the chaotic streets of Rawalpindi is a nightmare. But after a succession of road blocks, setbacks and dead ends, Maya finally convinces herself that Bin Laden is holed up in the house in Abbottabad, whereupon her convictions ascend to ladder of command to the point where the CIA director (James Gandolfini) braces himself to enter the Oval Office and recommend a stealth raid to the president.
“Bigelow and Boal play a long game, moving from the brutal opening through impressively detailed but not always compelling vignettes of the CIA at work to interludes in which Maya’s ferocious dedication begins to possibly play dividends and finally to the climactic forty minutes, which lay out with extraordinary detail and precision the almost improbably successful operation that begins at Area 51 in Nevada, where we first see the amazing stealth helicopters ideally designed for such a mission, and ends with Maya identifying the body that’s brought back.”
“In between is an exceptionally riveting sequence done with no sense of rah-rah patriotic fervor but, rather, tremendous appreciation for the nervy way top professionals carry off a very risky job of work; Howard Hawks would have been impressed. Slipping low through mountain passes in darkness from Afghanistan to Pakistan with rotor noise muffled by special equipment, the two choppers drop off their Navy SEALs, one then crashes in the yard but, remarkably, the noise seems not to arouse any locals just yet.
“Because of the black-and-green, video-like quality of the night vision imagery, these momentous events possess the pictorial quality of low-budget Blair Witch/Paranormal Activity thrillers, which merely contributes further to their weirdness. And because of the deliberate pace at which the men make their way through the house, an unsettling airlessness sets in, a feeling of being suspended in time that’s unlike any equivalent climactic action sequence that comes to mind.
“But quite apart from its historical significance, at least the scene is here to provide a welcome catharsis, as at one time would not have been the case. The filmmakers initially embarked on this project before the Bin Laden raid took place, which would obviously have resulted in an entirely different sort of film, dramatically and philosophically; without a resolution, it could hardly have helped from being an existential tale of quite substantial dimensions.”