PrintIn the good old days of the Cold War, with a few exceptions, films about the Cold War were pretty straightforward from a screenwriting point of view. You had two countries (the U.S. and U.S.S.R.) that were obviously identifiable, their goals were pretty straightforward, and the screenwriter wasn’t required to research a whole lot that could not be obtained from a few interviews and books he/she could get their hands on. Most importantly, audiences were not so savvy as they are today and so they were willing to accept an inordinate amount of bullshit. Today, however, if you’re going to write a political drama set in the modern geopolitical climate, your background research better be fit for a doctoral thesis. With information available at the tip of your fingers, screenwriters are expected to be fully armed with every facet of the event that their story covers. Sometime between the end of the Cold War and today, audiences also began to expect their political films to be less story-driven and more of a procedural documentary where nothing can be anything less than pinpoint accurate (e.g. SYRIANA, THE CONSTANT GARDNER, BODY OF LIES, THE HURT LOCKER, TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY). You can’t just walk into films of this type anymore without knowing anything about the subject matter or be a regular reader of the New York Times. To a large extent, ZERO DARK THIRTY is that film.

ZERO DARK THIRTY is director Kathryn Bigelow’s follow-up to her Academy Award-winning THE HURT LOCKER, which won Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay in 2009. I have always admired Bigelow because here is a 61-year old woman who until recently lived under the shadow of her ex-husband, mega-director James Cameron. For years she directed films that were sometimes well received (NEAR DARK, POINT BREAK, STRANGE DAYS), sometimes not well received  (BLUE STEEL, K-19: THE WIDOWMAKES) and that were always box office duds. What is even more remarkable is the fact that a woman older than my mother is successfully helming suspenseful and sophisticated action military thrillers – a domain of films exclusively reserved to men.

ZERO DARK THIRTY is the true (and now apparently controversial) story of Maya, a young CIA operative who has spent her entire career so far hunting down Osama Bin Laden. Maya’s journey to find the mastermind behind the 9/11 bombings begins in 2003 as she painstakingly traces one terrorist suspect to another in the hopes of finding Bin Laden. Courageous, determined, and arrogant, Maya continues her quest even after the rest of the world, including her own employer, the CIA, has seemingly given up on finding Bin Laden. ZERO DARK THIRTY is the story of that one woman, a lowly CIA agent, who found the most wanted man in the world.

Let’s just get this out of the way: Jessica Chastain as Maya is remarkable. I cannot think of a single actress from 2012 that can possibly beat Jessica Chastain for Best Actress at this year’s Academy Awards. The Bay Area native actress’ stock has skyrocketed over the past few years (TREE OF LIFE, THE HELP, TAKE SHELTER, and the upcoming MAMA) and for good reason. Chastain is able to convey so much just by her facial expressions. Chastain has a quiet, peaceful looking face that immediately wins your trust. Looking at her, its surprising to think that she works for the CIA and that she’s basically a manhunter. How could someone so delicate looking be such a tough hardass? Well, you soon discover that side and Chastain is absolutely believable when her frustration with the U.S. government’s lack of action and her dogged determination to continue her hunt surface.

As for the character, you admire Maya for her tenacity and unwillingness to never give up, but you also feel sorry for her. Recruited straight out of high school, Maya doesn’t know of any life outside of working for the CIA. She has no friends and even career-wise, she has done nothing but look for Bin Laden. On some level you admire her single-minded focus, but you have to wonder at what ultimate cost?

I suggested earlier to the fact that ZERO DARK THIRTY plays like a procedural documentary. It does and in doing so, for every tense, exciting moment in the film, you also witness the boring, uneventful stretches of time that take place as Maya and her colleagues go down one dead end after another looking for Bin Laden. If you come into this film expecting a wall-to-wall action/suspense movie, you may be in for some disappointment. Like in the real world, most of the time, nothing really happens. Especially during the film’s first hour, ZERO DARK THIRTY is less about narrative and more about immersing its audience into Maya’s world. Bigelow doesn’t waste time providing much background to her audience. She throws you into her world right after a very chilling opening credit sequence where you hear 911 calls on 9/11 from victims in the Twin Towers. After that, you have to try your best to keep up with the various names of terrorist suspects (whose names ALL SOUND ALIKE), the various CIA operatives and their roles, and generally what in the hell is going on. Your interest level during this portion of the film will basically depend on your expectations of the film’s tone. Again, if you are expecting an action movie, you will be bored. Personally, I think much of the early interrogation scenes of the suspect terrorists by Maya’s colleague, Dan (Jason Clarke) could have been cut down.

However, if you have the patience to allow the film to immerse you into its world and invest in its characters and their mission, the narrative buildup to Bin Laden’s discovery is an intense and involving experience. You reach a point in the film where you feel just as desperate as Maya to find Bin Laden. When that moment arrives when Maya has finally figured out where he lives, you will be just as amazed if not skeptical that after all these years and lives lost, this man has been found in a most unlikely place. By the way, halfway through the film, I began to also wonder how the filmmakers were able to gather so much information about Bin Laden’s hunt. I assume most of the information in ZERO DARK THIRTY is classified or at least normally would be. I suppose this is why the film is currently undergoing a Congressional investigation as to how it came upon its information.

An issue I would like to briefly address is whether ZERO DARK THIRTY exhibits a pro- or anti-war slant. I think the film wisely avoids skewing toward one end of the political spectrum and instead it presents the narrative as objectively as it can. The Pakistanis and Arabs are not demonized or portrayed as being incompetent, sneaky, or otherwise put into any other negative light. Conversely, the Americans are not portrayed as being conservative, liberal, or even very patriotic. The CIA operatives in the film don’t seem to care who is the President of the United States or question why their government is taking a particular foreign policy action. They don’t question, they just do the job and move on. The only time the political climate in Washington DC affects attracts their attention is when resources are taken away (e.g. when the CIA was no longer allowed to interrogate terrorist suspects after Obama took office) or when the government refuses to take action for political reasons (e.g. The White House’s delay in moving on Bin Laden after the CIA discovered his compound).

The final 30 minutes or so of the film where the Navy Seal Team Six team takes out Osama Bin Laden is a beautifully shot sequence that despite the fact we all know what the final outcome was, Kathryn Bigelow still managed to make it extremely suspenseful. It’s a beautiful endpoint to the years of hard work Maya put into finding Bin Laden and the film closes on her as she realizes the magnitude of her accomplishment.

ZERO DARK THIRTY is a tight film that is already garnering a lot of Oscar buzz and critical adulation. For anyone who loves political espionage thrillers and dramas, this is a film not worth skipping. Jessica Chastain once again proves herself to be a name to watch for in the future (which is difficult to avoid considering how many movies she seems to be in lately), but I am even more curious to see how Kathryn Bigelow follows up her two biggest films of her career to date.