Precise, meticulous, unsentimental, and electrifying, Zero Dark Thirty is a tough, stark, and superbly conceived procedural docudrama about the longest manhunt in history. It mixes intensity and intellectualism to provoke and disturb, and builds steadily and relentlessly to a potent climax.
There are no backdoor escapes: one of the first scenes provides a tutorial in the “necessity” of waterboarding. For Jason Clarke’s CIA interrogator Dan, chasing the elusive religious zealot and leader of Al-Qaeda means few alternatives. The only hope for success is steely resolve, rigorous focus, and unwavering patience, someone who can withstand the setbacks of a voyage that will last for more than ten years.
Enter Maya, a stubborn CIA analyst with only one goal in mind: “I’m going to kill bin Laden.” Jessica Chastain (Take Shelter, The Tree of Life) – on a brilliant acting streak since her seven-film breakout last year – gives a feral and furious performance of simmering rage and self-possession. When Dan burns out, Maya is forced to surrender her humanity, femininity, and compassion in order to finish a task of monumental proportions.
Returning from his first collaboration with Kathryn Bigelow three years ago and relying on journalistic instinct and scrupulous research, Mark Boal shapes an efficient and calculating screenplay that cuts out extraneous detail and keeps the facts at the forefront.
For her part, Bigelow’s direction is unexpectedly stunning, never shying away from silence or stillness or darkness. Despite a predictable outcome that should bankrupt narrative momentum, she keeps the audience riveted over the film’s 157-minute running time. The final raiding of the compound is a tour de force of editing, camerawork, and production design, evoking the visceral immediacy and urgency of real combat.
Unavoidably, these action sequences paint her lesser strengths in neon colours, and the middle hour dips and swerves ever so slightly. Similar to techno-savvy, fictionalized character study The Social Network, Zero Dark Thirty commands respect, even awe, but rarely affection. It is thin on character development, morally unstable – even deconstructionist – a ruthless slab of chiseled marble.
If it was impossible for Bigelow to top the tripwire tenseness of 2008’s Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker, she’s done an admirable job delivering against such expectations. Despite the potential for hyper-patriotism, her determination in choosing dry ambivalence over triumphalist sensationalism is commendable. With the thrilling, propulsive Zero Dark Thirty, her status as one of her generation’s most accomplished filmmakers is assured. It’s a fascistic, unholy achievement.