Kathryn Bigelow’s follow-up to her Oscar-winning best picture, “Hurt Locker,” is an even tougher and more gripping war picture taking place in the world of terrorist-tracking espionage. This is, of course, her much anticipated depiction of the decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden, “Zero Dark Thirty.”
Stripped of the usual gung-ho aspects of most war movies or revenge melodramas, the film is a calm, concentrated, densely detailed description of a manhunt on a global scale. It’s moviemaking at its engrossing best.
Moment by moment, from the opening scenes, the pursuit is frustrating, tiresome and brutal but it is also one thing more — relentless.
Bigelow and writer-producer Mark Boal track a small team of CIA operatives and in particular an agent played by Jessica Chastain as they pursue bin Laden right up to the moment — Zero Dark Thirty or 12:30 a.m. — when NavySEAL boots touch the ground inside his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan on May 2, 2011.
Knowing the outcome robs the film of no tension whatsoever. Such is the skill of the filmmaking on all sides that the film feels so authentic you imagine the watches worn by the SEALS are exact replicas.
The film plunges a viewer into the minutia of the hunt, references to Arab names and geographical locations you can’t possibly know about in this soul-deflating search for a needle in a haystack.
If “Skyfall” is a superb movie about how a fictional spy goes about his job, then “Zero Dark Thirty” is an even better movie about how actual spies go about theirs. If this movie were any more accurate, someone from the CIA would probably have to kill the filmmakers. (Relax, that’s a joke.)
The filmmakers do say that Chastain’s character, called Maya, is based on a real person with no doubt as little disclosure and as much fudging as possible to protect her identity.
As presented, she is recruited out of school just before 9/11, gets thrown into the ugliness of “enhanced interrogations” sessions of Al Qaeda detainees and gradually hardens her soul to accept what is necessary (as defined by her bosses) and develop a nearly unhealthy obsession to find the No. One Bastard in Al Qaeda.
She fits into two cinematic traditions: The intrepid sleuth determined to track down a killer, letting any semblance of a personal life fall by the wayside, and the brittlely aggressive heroine played by the likes of Joan Crawford and Bette Davis in the ’30s and continuing with Julia Robert’s Erin Brockovich more recently.
Bigelow positions Maya in early scenes as hanging around the periphery of the action, as men such as Jason Clarke’s Dan beat a detainee into submission, or being asked to sit in a remote seat at a key meeting at Langley.
Gradually though, she moves up into the camera frame until she looms larger than life. You get the impression she and she alone is on a mission, Charles Bronson-style.
She stands up to men above her rank and commands them to either do as she says or ship her back to Langley and explain this to their boss.
There is more than a little reverse chauvinism here where a male station chief is depicted with feet on the desk and a phone implanted in his ear to indicate Slothful Male.
She is given an interesting female counterpart though in Jennifer Ehle’s Jessica, another op in Pakistan who does things “old school,” i.e. operating out of a Cold War-era spy manual. Initially shooting daggers at one another over conference tables, they eventually become colleagues of sorts.
This is a pretty no-nonsense, apolitical view of spy craft. There is no agenda here and indeed events as portrayed would seem to justify torture.
“Do your fucking job and bring me people to kill!” screams Maya’s boss (Mark Strong) when things go awry and CIA ops get killed in the field. Spying doesn’t get more basic than that.
Never think of this as a “documentary style” movie though. You’re aware every moment of a filmmaker in charge of her images. The film simply strives for total naturalism.
Everything leads up to those minutes inside the bin Laden compound.
Here again an amazing combination of resolves dovetails: Every moment appears to represent the most thoroughly accurate record of this event with no phony Hollywood b.s. but with as much flair for edge-of-seat suspense that the best Hollywood b.s. can offer.
Mark Boal, remember, has a long history as a reporter so this is about as carefully researched a screenplay as possible. And Bigelow places actors among the SEALS such as Joe Edgerton and Chris Pratt who make vivid enough impressions to carry our best hope and worst fears into that compound.
In this sequence, time is suspended. The SEALs move carefully room by room, exploding doors open and viewing the compound through night-vision lenses that turn everything pea-soup green.
The taking of bin Laden couldn’t be more anti-climatic and perfunctory. Just as it no doubt was.
Production values on locations in India, the U.K., Jordan and the U.S. are admirable. This clearly is a movie to watch more than once since so many details slide by on first viewing.
Opens: December 19, 2012 (Columbia Pictures)
Production companies: Columbia Pictures presents a Mark Boal/First Light/ Annapurna Pictures production
Cast: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Joel Edgerton, Jennifer Ehle, Mark Strong, Kyle Chandler, Edgar Ramirez, James Gandolfini, Chris Pratt, Callan Mulvey
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Screenwriter: Mark Boal
Producers: Mark Boal, Kathryn Bigelow, Megan Ellison
Executive producer: Greg Shapiro, Colin Wilson, Ted Schipper
Director of photography: Greg Fraser
Production designer: Jeremy Hindle
Music: Alexandre Desplat
Costume designer: George L. Little
Sound design: Paul N. J. Ottosson
Editors: Dylan Tichenor, William Goldenberg
R rating, 161 minutes