“Zero Dark Thirty,” written by Mark Boal, directed by Kathryn Bigelow, 157 minutes, rated R.
In 2008, screenwriter Mark Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow won over critics with the Iraq war drama “The Hurt Locker,” and captured a slew of Oscars, setting the bar high for their follow up film “Zero Dark Thirty.” Chronicling the 10-year manhunt for Osama Bin Laden, the duo’s latest effort exceeds expectations, delivering what is undoubtedly one of the best films of 2012.
The film opens by plunging us into darkness, recounting the horrors of Sept. 11, 2001 through real-life phone calls from frightened victims of the World Trade Center attacks in the final moments of their lives. The desperation and certainty of death on that ill-fated day for 3,000 individuals is reflected here, serving as a stark reminder of the importance of bringing the man behind these attacks to justice.
From there, Bigelow jumps to a grisly torture scene of a detainee named Ammar (Reda Kateb), for names and contact information leading to a Saudi terrorist network. Here, we meet a CIA officer named Dan (Jason Clarke), a wild-looking bearded man, who works over Ammar with all the tactics we’ve heard about and read in the news.
Then there’s Maya (Jessica Chastain), a well-dressed redhead who we assume, at first glance, is apprehensive about torture — a good cop to Dan’s bad cop. To the contrary, she is as driven to get information out of detainees as Dan, and, like her counterpart, she’s willing to use any means necessary.
The one-two punch that is Bigelow’s introduction to “Zero Dark Thirty” is the most stirring and intense opening to a film this year, and arguably of all time. The experience leaves you emotionally winded, and the film continues at that pace for its remainder.
We follow Chastain’s Maya as her determination to find Bin Laden becomes an obsession, pursuing a lead into the al-Qaeda leader’s most trusted courier, which many of her colleagues believe to be a dead end. After years and years of false tips that have yielded nothing, it’s easy to see why.
But Maya goes with her gut, relentlessly tracking down the courier not knowing his birth name, and without any valuable information other than positive identification from several detainees that he does, in fact, exist.
Bigelow’s direction and Boal’s script are precise, thrilling and powerful, keeping you on the edge of your seat despite a known outcome, as the S.E.A.L. Team 6 comes into play, converging on the Pakistani fortress.
As comprehensive as “Zero Dark Thirty” may be, it’s impossible to verify the accuracy of all of its claims, which, according to Bigelow, come from first-hand accounts. I have no doubt, judging by the meticulous nature of the storytelling, that a good deal of research and preparation went into making this film. However, I’m reluctant to label it as pure nonfiction, but instead as historical fiction, a la Steven Spielberg’s “Munich.”
Even so, more than any film this year, “Zero Dark Thirty” will push boundaries, raise questions and spark political debate, all three signs that this is a great piece of cinema.