Joey Johnson Journal Contributor
Capturing the emotions and essence of an entire American decade is no easy task, especially when it comes to something as fueled as the manhunt for notorious Al Qaeda leader Usama bin Laden. Yet Kathryn Bigelow, director of 2009’s Oscar award-winning war film The Hurt Locker, does just that with her newest film, Zero Dark Thirty. It is a true tour-de-force on nearly every front, from its writing and directing, to the acting and editing, Zero Dark Thirty is arguably the best film of the year.
The film opens with a brutal reminder of why this manhunt carries the importance that it does; a black screen with audio tapes playing in the background of 911 calls on the day of Sept. 11, 2001. It sets the tone of the film immediately,
and puts the viewer’s attention in a vice.
Written by Hurt Locker scribe Mark Boal, Zero Dark displays an excellent balance between patriotism and realism. It’s hard not to make a film depicting the capture and execution of Usama bin Laden an all-out America-fest, but the film does an excellent job of not beating the viewer over the head with an American flag, and instead focuses on the detective-like aspect of a ten year long manhunt. It engages the viewer not only through the scope patriotism, but also as a lover of thrills.
The brilliant Jessica Chastain, who plays Maya, a CIA operative recently moved from Washington to Pakistan, is the aforementioned pseudo-detective of the film. She gives the viewers a nice bridge into the film’s CIA intense world, and often shares the sentiments of American citizens during this ten year period. Much like the audience, she shows a massive amount of hesitation and disgust when it comes to the torturing of insurgents in order to get information. But her stubborn perseverance is to be admired, and many will feel a strong draw to her character.
Having devoted her entire adult life to hunting down and capturing Bin Laden, her journey through the film is one of desperation. She has the utmost confidence in her work, and Chastain captures this essence perfectly. Another cast member worth mentioning is Jason Clarke, who plays Maya’s coworker and sort of guide into the Middle Eastern world. He is ruthless with his interrogations, but nearly always gets results. Clarke feels entirely real in this role, not coming off as being villainous, but very matter-of-fact with how he gains information. It is this sort of realism that makes him all the more interesting.
Shot with a handheld camera vibe, Zero Dark follows closely in the aesthetic footsteps as Hurt Locker, with the same identifiable sense of unrelenting instability as the American characters navigate their way in an environment completely unknown to the audiences. There’s a sense of “danger around every corner” as you watch the film, expecting a bomb to go off or a shooter to emerge from nowhere at every second. Every gunshot and explosion will shake your seat, or simply make you jump out of it. Heart rates will go through the roof, especially as the film nears its explosive final scenes.
Bigelow once again demonstrates her amazing prowess with creating a believable military film experience, and this may be her best yet. Zero Dark Thirty is, at its core, thrilling, but it is one of the most cleverly and professionally done thrillers to date.