If you’re going to make a movie for which the audience already knows the ending, you damn well better make it a good one. Sounds obvious, right? It’s surprising, though, how many times a film can manage to screw this up. When it’s done right, though, a film whose ending is a foregone conclusion can still leave the audience cheering for the home team or on the edge of their seat. To successfully accomplish this, a film has to immerse the viewer into the world of the film, introducing just enough tension that the audience has no choice but to go along for the ride. In this aspect, Zero Dark Thirty is an excellent triumph.
The film starts by replaying some of the frantic phone calls that took place on 9/11 and then progresses two years. Maya (Jessica Chastain) is a young CIA field agent who witnesses her first…abrasive interrogation being performed by Dan (Jason Clarke), a seasoned operative who’s clearly handled some of these interrogations. Maya and Dan’s mutual goal? To track down Osama bin Laden, the target of (likely) the largest manhunt in history.
At first uneasy with the tactics, Maya grows accustomed to the tact and finds herself immersed in the hunt. Rather than seeking bin Laden directly, she focuses her hunt on the man she believes to be his primary courier. This proves to be a considerable challenge, and she’s constantly at odds with her station chief, Joseph Bradley (Kyle Chandler), and she repeatedly shows her willingness to butt heads with upper-echelon management to get her way. She has a loose but distant relationship with her colleagues.
Eventually, the courier is tracked down to a compound in Pakistan. The CIA surveils the compound, but is unable to confirm that bin Laden is present. Frustrated, Maya and her colleagues have to convince the president to take action with less than concrete evidence, paving the way for Justin (Chris Pratt) and the rest of the SEALs of DEVGRU (Naval Special Warfare DEVelopment GRoUp, formerly known as SEAL Team 6) to raid the compound and bring down bin Laden (Ricky Sekhon) once and for all.
It has to be said that although the trailers show a lot of action, the bulk of the film is the efforts to track down Osama’s final hiding place. If you’re expecting a two hour action flick, you will be sorely disappointed. The film makes up for it, though, with a superlative mix of tension and unease. Although there isn’t a lot of gunfighting in the first couple hours, the perpetual threat of terrorist attacks is always present, and takes its toll on Maya and her colleagues.
Note that I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing. With the commercial success of last year’s Act of Valor, director Kathryn Bigelow could easily have created a pure action film based on the success of DEVGRU that would have been a crowd-pleaser, but for this film, the pace and dearth of action for the first couple hours actually works in its favor. In the aftermath of 9/11, there weren’t too many people who weren’t in favor of hunting down Osama bin Laden, but the fact that 4/5 of the film is the hunt itself attests to the slow process that the hunt involved. By the two hour mark, the audience is just as eager to see a resolution as Maya.
Once the action begins, though, those yearning for action will be highly satisfied. The infiltration of the compound is hardly a run-and-gun affair, but rather a measured, tense ingress. It would have been nice to see a glimpse of the training and preparation for the raid (a full mock-up of the compound was built in North Carolina, while a separate run was made in Nevada to test the effects of high-altitude on the experimental helicopters), but I don’t think the film could have been shortened to do so. Instead, Bigelow would have had to make the film longer, and as the film’s already at 2:37 in length, perhaps she felt it was unnecessary to do so.
The acting is excellent as well. By focusing almost completely on Maya’s trek, Bigelow shows the personal toll that the search takes on her. Maya admits she has no romantic interests at all; when one of her colleagues, Jessica (Jennifer Ehle), asks her if she even has any friends, she can’t give a straight answer. Clarke, too, is excellent in his supporting role as a grizzled vet who finally sees the toll the lifestyle is taking on him, opting to go back to Washington before it pushes him too far.
Normally, January is full of afterthoughts and films that aren’t highly thought of, but this weekend has two potential blockbusters, Zero and Gangster Squad. If you can only choose one, you can’t go wrong with Zero Dark Thirty. As I walked out of the theater, I saw some people drying their eyes, and I overheard them remark how surprisingly emotional the film was. During the opening credits, a 911 call plays, with a frantic woman in the WTC begging for help; finally, she asks, “I’m going to die, aren’t I?” The operator tries to comfort her, but when she receives no reply, all she can say is, “Oh, my God.” Even the most callous movie-goers can’t help but be touched by moments such as these.
More than anything, I found myself in awe of just how far operators like Maya will go. Too often the CIA gets a bad rap for highly-publicized failures, and that’s one of the unfortunate adages that’s proven true: the CIA’s failures are well-known, while most of its successes never will be. I’m happy to say that this effort, as well as the effort by Bigelow and Co., were complete successes.
Zero Dark Thirty gets an A.