“Zero Dark Thirty” was going to be controversial no matter how director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal handled the subject of the American hunt for Osama bin Laden. Some will say the movie comes too soon after bin Laden’s death, some will say that it is propaganda for the Obama administration, and some will say that the story the movie tells is wrong.
The thing about “Zero Dark Thirty” is that those complaints don’t really hold up. Yes, the debate about whether the depiction of extreme torture in the film is necessary is a valid one, but as Bigelow said recently, “I wish it was not part of our history, but it was.” As for that argument that the torture shown in the movie leads to the clue that tips off the hunt for bin Laden, that’s not true. It’s actually during a different scene where the prisoner is being treated kindly that the information is revealed.
“Zero Dark Thirty” doesn’t chose sides, even in the torture discussion. Instead, it seems to be as accurate a representation of the hunt for bin Laden as Boal and Bigelow could get based on their personal research and interviews. Of course some of the facts in the movie are going to be a little bit fudged for the sake of storytelling, but this isn’t a documentary. As Boal says, it’s a reported film, and it feels exactly like it.
It helps that “Zero Dark Thirty” is filled with excellent performances by all of the actors involved. Like “The Hurt Locker” before it, Bigelow manages to draw exactly what she wants out of those she cast in the film. If Jessica Chastain isn’t a household name by the time “Zero Dark Thirty” is done with awards show rounds, it’s a crying shame. She is fantastic as Maya, and really makes the movie her own. There’s a scene where she gives Kyle Chandler‘s character a piece of her mind, and Chastain admitted recently that even she doesn’t feel like she’s watching herself on the big screen.
The fact that Chastain doesn’t need lengthy monologues to explain Maya’s motivations is one of her strengths, to the point that seeing Maya with her hair done up in a scene means something significant and catching a glimpse of a picture with a friend lost during the war being used as her computer desktop image defines their entire relationship. By the time the final scene in “Zero Dark Thirty” comes around, Chastain doesn’t need to say a word to get across the emotions Maya is reeling from.
But to put the focus on Chastain alone doesn’t do “Zero Dark Thirty” justice. Jason Clarke is great as Maya’s CIA colleague Dan, and though he doesn’t get as much screen time Jessica does, he certainly knows how to make an impression. There’s a sequence of scenes in particular featuring Clarke and some monkeys that is based on true events and speaks strongly about the impact of the war in Iraq and hunt for bin Laden had on the men and women fighting in it, and stays with a viewer long after the watch the movie. Like with Chastain, Clarke doesn’t need words to get his character’s motivations and emotions across.
The same can be said of every actor in this movie. Chandler, Chris Pratt, Jennifer Ehle, Joel Edgerton, Mark Duplass: They’re all fantastic. If any one of them was subpar, it could have made “Zero Dark Thirty” fall apart, but they aren’t. That’s as much a testament to Bigelow’s directing as it is to her actors’ performances.
Ultimately, nothing can help “Zero Dark Thirty” from being divisive. Some will love it and some will hate it, but everyone should at least respect it. The amount of care that went into this project shows, and hopefully it ushers in a new era of similar “reported film.” After all, how can the story of “the greatest manhunt in history” not be worth telling?