Zero Dark Thirty (Columbia Pictures, R)

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film zero_smIt’s tempting to read Zero Dark Thirty as an allegory of the filmmaking process, but that’s a side issue with no real bearing on the film itself.

 

 

 

film zero_lg 

In military slang, “zero dark thirty” means “12:30 a.m.,” and more generally the small dark hours of the night. In Kathryn Bigelow’s stunning new feature film, the title refers not only to the timing of the raid that culminated in the death of Osama bin Laden, but also to the necessary secrecy wrapped around the 12-year intelligence operation that led to that successful raid.

As in her Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker, in Zero Dark Thirty Bigelow shows great respect for the hard, dangerous, and largely behind-the-scenes work that is necessary before for the big splashy successes that make the news can happen. The reenactment of the Navy SEAL raid that got bin Laden is one of the best action sequences ever put on film, but her depiction of the 12-year intelligence-gathering process that led up to that raid is even more impressive.

The action of Zero Dark Thirty begins on Sept. 11, 2001, with a completely black screen and a collage of voices from that terrible day. Then, in the first of many chronological and geographical jumps, the film abruptly takes us forward two years, to a man (Reda Kateb) being tortured in a CIA black site. Even though the scene is not nearly as gruesome as it might have been (no torture porn here), it’s thoroughly repulsive. One of the agents (Jessica Chastain) is clearly sickened by it, while the other (Jason Clarke) takes the attitude that he is simply doing his job.

It tells you a great deal about the ethos of Zero Dark Thirty that Maya, the agent who is repelled, is the central figure of the film. She’s the very antithesis of the stereotypical macho warrior, and clearly new to the business as well, but she persists on her mission with single-minded dedication until bin Laden is dead. We learn little about Maya, other than the fact that she is thoroughly professional, dedicated to her work, and has a steely determination that sees her through not only the revolting scenes of torture, but also long hours spent in front of a computer and the wrangling with the bureaucracy necessary to get her job done.

Maya’s character provides the through-line of a complex story told through a series of episodes, each of which is populated with excellent performances by a large cast, including Joel Edgerton as leader of the raid on bin Laden’s compound, Kyle Chandler as a CIA station chief, Jennifer Ehle as a CIA analyst, Mark Strong as a CIA officer, and James Gandolfini as Leon Pannetta. These dedicated performances, along with an excellent technical package (including cinematography by Greig Fraser, editing by William Goldenberg and Dylan Tichenor, and production design by Jeremy Hindle) and a tight script by Mark Boal, make the film feel much shorter than its 157 minutes. There aren’t any easy payoffs, but the story is never less than compelling.

It’s tempting to read Zero Dark Thirty as an allegory of the filmmaking process, particularly since the central figure is a woman, but that’s totally a side issue that has no real bearing on the film itself. So are the discussions about whether Bigelow and Boal had undue access to classified information, and whether the film glorifies torture (in both cases, the answer is no). I take it as a sign of how good Zero Dark Thirty that it began attracting so much attention—and jealousy—even before its release. This film will be a hard sell in a country that’s used to films that treat war as a video game in which our side always wins and there’s no collateral damage, but that’s all the more reason you should see it in the theater while you can. | Sarah Boslaugh

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