There’s a scene, late in Zero Dark Thirty, in which CIA director Leon Panetta and his team are sitting around a table, looking at a model of what may be Osama bin Laden’s compound.
The analysts are giving their thoughts about just how sure they are that he is there, and whether they should take action, but none of them can say it definitively.
Then, from the corner of the room, one analyst announces that she’s 100% sure that’s it.
Who are you, Panetta asks.
“I’m the motherfucker who found this place,” barks Maya (Jessica Chastain), the redheaded analyst who spent more than 10 years tracking down Public Enemy Number 1, and is the only person in that room full of men who has the conviction and, quite frankly, the balls to stand her ground.
A decade of such obsessive work will do that to you.
Obsession of a different kind — exhaustive, detailed research crossed with confident filmmaking — is what makes Zero Dark Thirty such a good film. It’s worthy of every award nomination, critics group recognition, and top-10 list placement (including my own) it gets.
Made by the same team that did the Oscar-winning Hurt Locker — director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal — Zero Dark Thirty documents the 10-year attempt by the CIA to find Osama bin Laden, and tells the story from the perspective of Maya, an analyst hired straight out of school who worked on nothing but this case. (Maya is not a real person, but she’s based on a real person, an analyst who cannot be identified at this time.)
When we first meet Maya, she’s witnessing the torturing — sorry, the “enhanced interrogation” — of a prisoner by her colleague, an officer named Dan (Jason Clarke). She’s horrified by the extreme lengths he’ll go to get information, and frustrated when it turns up nothing. “It’s going to take a while,” Dan tells Maya. But, he adds, “in the end, everybody breaks.”
Cue foreshadowing: We watch as Maya spends the next decade becoming consumed by the search, going from disciplined government officer to obsessed, impatient analyst. She breaks, too. When Maya speaks up in that meeting with Panetta (played here by James Gandolfini), blunt in her language and unable to hold back, it’s with the voice of someone who can’t wait anymore, and is tired of being dismissed and told no.
What a performance this is. Chastain wears every one of Maya’s emotions like a costume, bringing you inside this character, and revealing her fury and determination, not to mention her vulnerability.
Maya’s raw, but she knows her stuff. Don’t mess with her. Let’s get the guy. Finally.
Bigelow’s filmmaking is similarly gutsy. She takes us from the interrogations to the boardrooms to the offices to the military camps, and finally, to bin Laden’s compound, going beyond the military operations to show the intellectual work involved in such an operation — much like Lincoln showed the backroom dealings and negotiations that led to the passing of the 13th Amendment. Working from Boal’s crackling screenplay, and without an obvious political agenda, she builds suspense that always pays off, and never lets you forget the human cost of such diligence.
This kind of work takes a toll on Maya, and the way Boal and Bigelow dramatize it, it’s exhausting for us too. It’s intense.
But hold on. That’s nothing.
Just wait until you hear the thunderous sound of the helicopters descending on bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad just after midnight (the title refers, in military time, to 12:30 a.m.) on May 2, 2011 in the film’s white-knuckle climax, and you see the Navy SEAL team (which includes Joel Edgerton and Chris Pratt) do their thing.
This loud noise is followed by still silence, as we switch to night-vision imagery and track the SEALs as they split up and look for “UBL,” guns at the ready. Photographed with hand-held cameras, the scene is a feat of you-are-there filmmaking with the camera going with the SEALs down hallways and on the rooftops till they get their man.
We know the eventual outcome, but it doesn’t matter. This scene will make your heart race and your palms sweat until the SEALs are back on their helicopter and then back in their camp, job done. Bigelow deserves all the awards for this scene alone. Watching it is an experience you’ll never forget.
Haunting until the very end, when the look of relief on Maya’s face says it all, Zero Dark Thirty is a stunningly impressive achievement. Like our hero, it doesn’t rest until bin Laden is found and killed, and it keeps us on the edge of our seat throughout.
Filmmaking doesn’t get much better than this.
I’m giving Zero Dark Thirty an A.
This movie is on your must-see list, right? If you’ve seen it, let me know in the comments section below what you thought.