Ten years. From the opening of “Zero Dark Thirty,” in which real phone conversations of people trapped in the burning World Trade Center are heard over a black screen, to the unlikely ending, 10 years pass.
But director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal seem to accomplish the impossible, maintaining dramatic tension throughout the long hunt for Osama bin Laden and the more than 2½ hours of “Zero Dark Thirty.”
Through the enhanced interrogations of terror detainees. Through the bureaucratic fights within the spy community. Through the thousands of tips and dead-end leads and booby-trap setups.
“Zero Dark Thirty” is a remarkable piece of filmmaking because of great writing, great direction and that tension, which is personified in the stellar performance of Jessica Chastain.
Chastain (“The Help”) plays Maya, a CIA agent (based on a real person) assigned to help track down bin Laden. She arrives in the Middle East, at the site of a grueling enhanced interrogation, dressed in a black pantsuit.
Veteran CIA interrogator Dan (Jason Clarke, excellent at exuding machismo) takes that in and tells Maya there's no shame in watching the painful process on a video monitor.
She does not. A steely Maya quickly proves she's up to the task at hand. What's amazing about the performance is that you can see simultaneously her resolve and the personal price she's paying for straddling a morally ambiguous line.
The hunt for bin Laden takes over Maya's life. Totally. No conventional Hollywood love interest in this movie. No family back home to soften the character. Just Chastain's skill and Maya's will as we watch her change and harden and yet not shed her humanity.
Many fans will go into this movie eager to see the actual raid on bin Laden's compound that took place in May 2011, using stealth helicopters and night-vision goggles. You'll get lots of detail when it finally comes around, and plenty of tension in that sequence, too.
But if you're like me, you won't be restless in the long leadup to the climactic operation.
One reason is excellent supporting players like Clarke; Jennifer Ehle as a female colleague of Maya's; Kyle Chandler as a CIA station chief; James Gandolfini as the head of the CIA; and Chris Pratt and Joel Edgerton as members of the Navy SEAL team that raids the compound.
Another is the skilled work of cinematographer Greig Fraser and editors William Goldenberg (“Seabiscuit,” “The Insider”) and Dylan Tichenor (“There Will Be Blood”).
But it's Bigelow, Boal and Chastain who deserve the lion's share of accolades for this excellent movie, right down to the last moment.
That moment finds Maya headed home, alone in the giant belly of a military transport plane. Watch her face carefully in that moment. It sums up the cost of the mission in a way no accountant ever could.
Contact the writer: