Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Reviewed: 22 January 2013
War journalist Chris Hedges stated, "The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug." Kathryn Bigelow opened her classic Oscar-winning war film "The Hurt Locker" with Hedges's words, and that tense film explored the lives of bomb-defusing soldiers in Iraq. It was an unforgettable cinematic exploration of modern warfare as well as its cost. Bigelow's follow-up film "Zero Dark Thirty" chronicles the hunt for Osama bin-Laden (ubiquitously referred to as UBL) and the network of C.I.A. agents, administrators, politicians, and soldiers who physically embody our national vengeance. It is one of the most powerful films of the year.
Bigelow opens this film with a dark screen with layered sounds of urgent, desperate phone calls from September 11th, 2001, citizens begging and urging the 911 operators to help and save them. The responders on the other end of those fateful calls were powerless; nothing could be done. American citizens burned and jumped out of towers, dying in smoke and fear. That emotional core is where Bigelow begins: America's impotence. The remaining story deals with our national obsession for revenge, the relentless and morally dubious search for UBL through oceans of paperwork, countless video files, torture and subsequent confessions from detainees, as well as bureaucratic mazes of right and wrong. It is a relentless film. Bigelow zeroes in on Maya (Jessica Chastain), an indefatigable C.I.A. agent who interviews detainees, chasing down leads to possible couriers who could lead to USB. Her task, as a colleague reminds her, is the proverbial needle in the haystack, and there is no one else by the late 2000’s doing this exhaustive work. Chastain’s supporting cast includes Jason Clarke as Dan, a fellow agent, Kyle Chandler as a station chief Joseph Bradley in Afghanistan, as well as Mark Strong and James Gandolfini as unnamed C.I.A. higher-ups in the government who are ultimately responsible for pushing President Obama to make the decisions leading to the strike in Abbottabad, Pakistan on May 1st, 2011.
Bigelow slices her film into chapters that leap forward in time, players change out, leaders and policies change, showing the cost of the grind of conducting the war on terror, the paranoia of missing the next attack. Chastain carries the film, proving fully capable of being the only woman in the room during the important meetings. Her performance is one of quiet, tired relentlessness, devoid of many showy speeches and moments, but undeniably powerful. For whatever unspoken reasons, Maya sacrifices her life for the hunt. Maya is Clarice Starling for the 21st Century, except she is not charmed by her Hannibal Lecter. She absorbs immense pain and becomes a target herself, yet remains committed to the cause. Bigelow wisely puts Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama in the background as talking heads on televisions, speaking in generalities miles away from where sound bites meet gritty realities. The film is not about them. It is about the people who execute their orders.
Bigelow takes the audience for the first time inside of detention centers and torture in gruesome, painful detail with Dan leading and prodding but Maya following, witnessing, and participating. By depicting horrific acts done to fellow human beings by agents of the US government, Bigelow shows torture in all of its degradation. Yet, the film offers a measured look at such actions. Did such torture help lead to the inevitable raid? Do the ends justify the means? Bigelow’s point may be that whether intelligence was gleaned or not may be immaterial. This country tortured and in its collective bloodlust the United States hurt and destroyed countless people, innocent and guilty, in pursuit of vengeance.
Bigelow’s confidence in her story allows scenes to play out at length. She crafts the story slowly, accruing each painful piece. A tracking sequence in a crowded marketplace is enthralling for its low-tech bare bones qualities. The needle in the haystack. The final thirty minutes of the film achieve a near documentary feel for the actual Navy SEAL Team Six attack on the compound. I understood for the first time that this raid was an American attack on a sovereign country's soil with the possibility of sparking a third war. There are neighbors who hear the helicopters land in Abbottabad and come out to look. There are the risks of a failed mission, a helicopter crash, unspoken shades of the botched rescue mission in 1979 Iran with untold political implications. Bigelow lets the attack play out in real-time with no cutting back to the base or to D.C. At this stage in the hunt, the mission is in the capable hands of the soldiers who are the very best at what they do. And the green-hued scopes and goggles of the SEAL Team 6 peer into the compound, hungry but lethally dispassionate. Their goggles and green light give them an alien appearance that is unsettling. Bigelow delivers the ending of the raid with restraint and a deep reverence for their workmanlike abilities and attitudes. Celebratory is not a word that comes to mind. This is work.
Bigelow’s final shot of the film, a wonderful symbolic evocation of where vengeance leads, moved me more than nearly any cinematic image this year. Movement and stasis. Destination and arrival. Addiction and fix. With “Zero Dark Thirty,” Bigelow continues to explore modern warfare and policy in the most adult and serious of ways. In many ways, her two most recent films are the most bracingly honest cinematic depictions of the last twelve years of American history.
If “war is a drug,” what does that make America?
And, where do we go from here?