The art of war

The art of war

Political thriller is a film not to be missed

By Tim Pompey 01/17/2013

Zero Dark Thirty
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Ehle
Rated R for strong violence, including brutal disturbing images, and for language
2 hrs. 37 mins.

The hunt for Osama bin Laden haunted the U.S. after the terrible attack on Sept. 11, 2001. And for many of us, despite his death in May 2011, the story of how he eluded capture for a decade still remains a muddy mystery.

Director Kathryn Bigelow’s new film Zero Dark Thirty helps shed light on that mystery, and what she unveils is not a pretty picture. When she picks up the story in 2003, the CIA is using torture to gather information and is bogged down by political and bureaucratic infighting. Meanwhile, no one seems able or even willing to connect the dots. The result:  Bin Laden remains at large.

What emerges from Bigelow’s perspective is this: First, a small group of CIA operatives cajoled and forced the agency to remain engaged in bin Laden’s pursuit. Second, the eventual success of bin Laden’s assassination was due to some careful planning and an awful lot of sketchy guesswork. It could easily have been a major disaster. The bottom line is, the U.S. government got lucky.

Bigelow and writer Mark Boal, who collaborated on the Oscar-winning film The Hurt Locker, have successfully teamed up again for this film. They make you feel the sheer weight of bin Laden’s pursuit and the frustration of CIA operatives who tracked thousands of obscure clues, then had a difficult time convincing higher-ups to believe what they told them.

There’s no doubt that most viewers will initially be confused by some of the language and actions that the CIA took as part of this process. The film is heavy on “code speak” and sometimes short on details, but with some patience, you can catch the gist. It gets better as the story unfolds.

What’s fascinating is how Bigelow and Boal seem to capture the life of a CIA agent in pursuit of terrorists. There’s a sense of authenticity to the acting and the dialogue, as if the director and writer had spent hours sitting in on CIA meetings to catch the finer points of agency operation and politics.

The actors seem to pick up on this and carry the story forward with grit and determination. In particular, Jessica Chastain as Maya gives a bone chilling performance as a woman in a man’s world who has to fight for her right to speak. She’s tough. She’s smart. But she’s also haunted by bin Laden’s attacks. It becomes personal for her. She wants bin Laden dead.

This film is truly disturbing, not only in the graphic nature of the torture scenes, but in the way that governments carry out dirty secret wars to ensure their own survival. Bigelow seems able to present multiple viewpoints — the good, the bad, the ugly, the gray and the bloody — without surrendering to sentiment or finger pointing. It’s the way the world works and she paints a vivid picture of the messy nature of combat and politics.

She’s also skillfully pieced together the Seal Team 6 raid on bin Laden’s compound and managed to make it hum with military precision. The last 45 minutes of this film will literally have you on the edge of your seat.

Zero Dark Thirty is one of those movies that will probably become a classic, not only because of its controversial material, but because it’s a rare moment in filmmaking when talent begets talent and the entire cast and crew seem to rise to the occasion and find the sweet spots.

I don’t say this about many films, but this is one pic you should not miss. It may open up some wounds, but so be it. Toughen up, take a deep breath, and focus. This is a great movie, but it’s gonna hurt like hell to watch it.


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