Sad Hill Media

Film & Lesser Arts with Will Ross, Devan Scott, & Daniel Jeffery.

by Will Ross

Nothing turns the public’s ears to a filmmaker like a Best Picture Oscar win, and their next film tends to be an ambitious, singular work of interest, be it good (A Serious Man) or bad (Les Misérables). The latest such statement is Zero Dark Thirty, from writer Mark Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow. Three years out from their Iraq bomb-squad thriller The Hurt Locker, one can scarcely ask for a more definitive post-Oscar statement: Zero Dark Thirty expands on its predecessor in every way: in style, in scope, in ambition, in controversy.

The subject matter affords it those expansions: a dramatization of the US’s near-decade long manhunt for al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. The hunt is depicted through the eyes of CIA officer Maya (Jessica Chastain), a woman with a self-admitted lack of friends and interests that don’t directly further her search.

At the outset, Maya is faced with moral issues, namely the torture of captured al Qaeda operatives in the interest of procuring intel. This sequence has brought the film much heat, not for portraying torture as moral (it is clearly a horrible, unconscionable ordeal) but for allegedly falsely presenting it as having been necessary to the eventual killing of bin Laden.

But the film hasn’t earned half the scorn it’s received; first because it’s not certain whether the torture gives the characters the only possible access to this information, second because actual records of torture and interrogation in the US can’t possibly all be declassified for the public, which therefore limits our objective knowledge of it enough to permit artistic liberties, third because the film strenuously opposes torture on the more important level — the moral one.

But politics aside, Zero Dark Thirty is an extremely compelling film unto itself, a tense, episodic story with an incredible economy of character and story. We know very little background about Maya, but Boal’s script and Chastain’s performance draw out everything we need: her personality, her motivations, and what she’ll do to get what she wants — it doesn’t take long for Maya to become a huge pain in her bosses’ asses, nor to table any squeamishness she feels over torture.

Further multiplying the film’s gravity is its replete set pieces, which more than equal those of The Hurt Locker. The suspense scenes in Zero Dark Thirty always feel just on the verge of disaster, particularly in the film’s climax, an exhausting, thirty-minute depiction of the famous raid on bin Laden’s compound. I have never heard a packed theatre as quiet as I did during that climax. Not one cough, nor rustle, nor any sound but gasps and jumps.

As the operation concludes, the weight of the two-hour procedural that preceded falls upon us, and we feel the importance of all that has happened. And, in the final scene, the realization shared between us and Maya that only in the end do we understand the cost of it all.


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