It finally opened wide, after an agonizing wait. The wait was worth it.
Zero Dark Thirty, the controversial movie about the killing of bin Laden, turned up the suspense (a remarkable feat in a story in which we all know the end) and never let it wane.
The movie covers the 10 year span after 9/11 when the CIA embarked on a long and tedious search for the al-Qaeda kingpin. At the center of the search is the character Maya (Jessica Chastain), the agent who becomes obsessed with finding him. Maya is based on a real person (and is also said to be part compilation). Director Kathryn Bigelow (outrageously passed over for an Oscar nomination) has said the movie is based on the first-hand accounts of unnamed persons. That the government is trying to unearth names tells me that Bigelow got close. And that flap about the use of torture? C'mon, who doesn't believe it was employed in the early hunt, especially when Obama expressly forbid it after taking office? I, for one, think the movie makers got this pretty darn close to the truth. And the final assault on the compound was probably as close as we're ever going to get to the truth. It rang true and showed us just how treacherous and dangerous the mission was and how brave and well-equipped those Seals were. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
I've come to admire not only the people who spent years of frustration running down thousands of leads and coming up short most of the time, and the talented cast who portrayed them. We get a unique insight into how the CIA works and how incredibly tedious their work is. People rotate in and out of the Middle East, while Maya stays the course. Her first co-worker, Dan, played to perfection by Jason Clarke, is an expert at torture, but there's very little payoff in terms of information. Those being "interrogated" – in a blisteringly hot, bleak bunker, chained in a standing position for hours when they aren't lying face-up being water-boarded – are either hardcore terrorists or small frys who don't know anything. Either way, information leading anywhere is hard to come by. And while he's tough, Clarke's character shows his softer side in surprising ways.
The CIA does know (probably) that a very elusive carrier may be the key, but finding him is proving as hard as finding bin Laden. Clue after clue dries up. And still Maya persists.
Chastain is supported by a terrific cast, including Kyle Chandler as the CIA station chief, Jennifer Ehle as another colleague, James Gandolfini in a small but pivotal role as the head of the CIA, and Chris Pratt and Joel Edgerton as Navy Seals, and many more.
The action is often quiet, but always tense. Throughout the movie's two and a half hours, no one left the auditorium, remaining riveted on the screen. My only quibble with the movie is the length … I think a little bit could have been trimmed in the early going. But Chastain makes up for that by being a constant luminous presence. She certainly deserves her Oscar nomination.
The violent scenes, including torture and killing, are handled with restraint. The language is what you would imagine if you were working under the conditions they were. Even Chastain joins in as "one of the boys."
One of the pluses of the film is getting the recent history we all know (or think we know) presented to us visually, putting everything into context. How many times have we said: Why can't they find that guy? What's taking so long? This helps to answer those questions. It also gives us a close-up look at the conditions our military have been enduring.
This is a meticulously-crafted film about an important topic. Never over-the-top, it feels real at all times. And the final raid is a real nail-biter, as we move right alongside those Seals, seeing the action through night-goggles just as they are. Fascinating.
I highly recommend this powerful movie. While it may have taken a few liberties, it's about as close to a history lesson as we're going to get.
Four reels for this one.