Jessica Chastain in a scene from "Zero Dark Thirty" (Photo : Sony Pictures)
"Zero Dark Thirty,"Kathryn Bigelow's follow-up to her Oscar winning "The Hurt Locker,"is a riveting account of the manhunt that led to the capture and death of Osama bin Laden. Like her prior film, "Zero Dark Thirty" is a masterful display of gritty filmmaking that delivers interesting political commentary without ever taking a moral side. However, what makes Zero Dark Thirty a more successful film is that Bigelow manages to keep track of the humanism among the politicking and lengthy jargon-filled conversations.
As the film initiates a title card indicates September 11, 2001. Bigelow tactfully brings the viewer back in time with a cacophony of phone conversations overlapping on a black screen. Knowing the traumatic effect the imagery could have on certain viewers, Bigelow tactfully maintains a black screen throughout the sequence, which is all the more impactful. After a few moments, Bigelow cuts to 2003 where the CIA is in the midst of its operation to find bin Laden. The initial sequences of the film feature the controversial torture scenes that have been called into question by a number of politicians, but the Academy Award winning director shows a great deal of restraint in the portrayal of such cruel moments. While Bigelow shows enough to make one uncomfortable, none of the tortures are ever drawn out or gratuitous in execution. The sequences also serve to establish Bigelow's decision to present the film in an objective manner. We do not get to interact enough with most of these characters and the decision to maintain some distance ensures that there is no kinship with either side. There are no good guys or bad guys in this tale; just humans. It makes for some interesting questioning of the treatment of the prisoners and even makes the viewer wonder whether the revenge on bin Laden really made all the crimes against other humans worthwhile. Even as American characters spew out statistics on how many people bin Laden has killed, one is often left wondering if these Americans really do have the moral high ground in these conversations and if their own torturing of the prisoners is not as bad as the crimes they keep on using to justify their actions.
Bigelow and editors William Goldenberg and Dylan Tichenor do a splendid job of maintaining a relentless pace throughout the film as it moves toward its inevitable climax. A great deal of events take place, but the use of title cards to separate the film into chapters creates a sense of focus and participation for the viewer. Many of these chapters have ambiguous titles which instantly increase the viewer's curiosity and Bigelow's eventual revelation of each of these titles is always subtle and lends a solid payoff to each of the film's episodes.
The climactic infiltration of the compound where bin Laden is hiding is easily the most exhilarating action sequence of the year. After maintaining a steady forward moving tempo throughout the rest of the film, Bigelow opts for a languid pace which only serves to increase the tension for the viewer. As the troops fly toward the compound, there is a sense of endlessness as Bigelow continuously cuts from the soldiers inside the plane to the pilots to an exterior of the plane to the massive landscape to the military base and then back to the inside of the plane. The repetitive cutting occurs multiple times during this particular sequence, increasing the suspense. When the officers finally infiltrate the compound, Bigelow slows the tempo even more to further the heightened sense of anxiety. Everyone knows how this is going to end, but Bigelow's ability to not only keep the viewer involved but in suspense shows the mastery of her work.
Adding to the visceral nature of that scene is the dark cinematography of Greig Fraser. Fraser barely exposes the image throughout the siege sequence, giving the viewer just enough visual information to discern what is going on. However, most of it is barely visible adding to the sense of claustrophobia and discomfort. Throughout the rest of the film, Fraser resorts to gritty handicam style in the Middle Eastern sequences to create a strong sense of chaos and instability. A lot of these shots are tight and lacking in depth of field, which only adds to the clustered feeling. During one chase sequence, a group of operatives are seeking out bin Laden's courier through a crowded street. Throughout the initial stages of the sequence, the characters are framed in the aforementioned tight angles with minimal depth of field. However, as the characters search the camera cuts to wider and wider angles until there is a panoramic view of the heavily crowded street. This angle gives the viewer a sense that the search is akin to that of a needle in a haystack. When the film cuts to the US CIA head quarters or the White House, the style becomes more structured and fluid. The handicam is replaced with smoother dolly or steadicam movements and medium shots are preferred to the tight angles, creating a strong sense of contrast between the two worlds.
While the film is a marvel of visuals and editing, it is held together by Jessica Chastain's towering performance as Maya. As the film initiates, Maya is brought in to witness a torture scene. Her level of discomfort is clearly visible in these scenes but she maintains her composure. As her involvement in the search increases, Chastain's character takes on a confident swagger and showcases strength that was not visible in the early stages. When Maya is met with a number of inevitable obstacles and her obsession with completing the task develops, the character's emotional control slowly starts to erode until she explodes at Kyle Chandler's Joseph Bradley for his lack of support toward her. Her final moment in the scene is one of the most fascinatingly ambiguous acting moments of the year as it creates an interesting perspective on the character and the story that haunts the viewer long after the film has ended. Bigelow does not really delve into Maya's personal life or character outside of her work, but Chastain's delicate, sweet manner coupled with her determination makes the audience identify and root for her. Without Chastain's empathetic portrayal, the film potentially loses its ability to connect on an emotional level.
The rest of the cast which includes Chandler, Mark Strong, Jason Clarke, Reda Kateb, and Jennifer Ehle do a splendid job of complementing Chastain's portrayal. Alexandre Desplat brings an energetic score to the proceedings though it is hardly noticeable during the early portions of the film. The dark, menacing music he conjures up for the climactic raid is one of the more fascinating cues of the film and adds to the dread and suspense of the sequence.
"Zero Dark Thirty's"early awards buzz is certainly not without merit as Bigelow conjures up an immersive, exciting portrayal of one of the most significant historical achievements in recent US history. Jessica Chastain's brilliant performance keeps the film together on an emotional level while Bigelow's methodic pacing enables her to orchestrate one of the most exhilarating films of the year.
Other Film Reviews by David Salazar
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Life of Pi
Killing Them Softly
Silver Linings Playbook