'Zero Dark Thirty' tells stirring story of bin Laden raid

Jessica Chastain in "Zero Dark Thirty." SOURCE COLUMBIA PICTURES
January 13, 2013

Let me be honest. I went into “Zero Dark Thirty” expecting to learn as much about the raid on the Osama bin Laden compound as I learned about Vietnam from “Rambo.” I don’t typically get my history lessons from dramas, no matter how much they purport to be “based on a true story.” I wish to be told an engaging story. It does not have to be the definitive story.

The film has been fodder for politicizing ever since it was announced that director Kathryn Bigelow was going to follow up her 2008 Oscar-winning “The Hurt Locker” with this tale of SEAL Team Six’s overnight mission. Leave that to the Sunday morning talking heads who need to fill their hours with sound bites.

But that is only a fraction of “Thirty’s” tale.

It’s also bookended by a night-vision attack in the home stretch of this picture, and it’s as taut, thrilling and panic-inducing as anything the muscular director has ever shot (and this is the woman who introduced us to Johnny Utah and a parachuting Patrick Swayze in the indelible “Point Break,” mind you!). The majority of the picture is more of a procedural drama than a revenge fantasy. It focuses on Maya (played by Jessica Chastain), a young CIA agent whose first real day on the job leads her to a Pakistani “black site” in which she witnesses a colleague waterboarding a reluctant prisoner a few years after Sept. 11, 2001.

“Thirty” is her story, and the camera rarely leaves her side. And while we never really get to know what drives her impassioned devotion to tracking down Osama bin Laden, we don’t mind spending nearly all two-plus hours of the film’s runtime with her. The only glimpse of her progression as a character is during one of the aforementioned torture scenes. She initially recoils in horror, but when she’s later left alone with a pleading prisoner, she coldly replies, “You can help yourself by being truthful,” and walks away.

The majority of “Thirty” unfolds in secret boardroom meetings, dusty U.S. embassy sites and clandestine CIA locales, where men in suits doubt and dismiss Maya’s monastic drive to capture the World Trade Center bombing mastermind. Along the way, we are introduced to Dan (played by Jason Clarke), a field officer who approaches his intensely turbulent interrogations with surprising subtlety; Joseph Bradley (played by Kyle Chandler) as a doubting boss; and James Gandolfini as a stern-but-fair CIA head. Throughout, we are witness to the fascinating inner workings of a government-sanctioned manhunt.

And then the film shift gears into its stirring, prodigious conclusion as we are thrust into what could easily be its crowning jewel: the raid itself. It’s as though the nighttime ambush is from a different film altogether - we never really know the SEALs assigned to the task - but this is where Bigelow kicks off her heels and feels most at home. In many films, this may be a fault, but here it fits the narrative and the legend of the faceless, deadly ciphers of Team Six.

“Thirty” is a more confident film than her award-winning “Locker,” and it feels as though the film marks another chapter in her cinematic evolution. She started in the ‘80s with a young Willem Dafoe in “The Loveless,” a young Bill Paxton in “Near Dark,” and a young Jamie Lee Curtis in “Blue Steel,” three films that resembled fun forays into the exploitation genre. But over time, she has gravitated toward gritty realism, while still clinging to the action that has fueled her career for nearly four decades.

I am sure there are kernels of truth scattered throughout “Zero Dark Thirty,” but I was more drawn by how successfully screenwriter Mark Boal’s take on the tale winds us through the machinations of the hunt with military precision.

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