When it comes to the death of Osama Bin Laden, I thought I’d heard it all – and then I saw Zero Dark Thirty. Perhaps both the most anticipated and controversial film to be released towards the end of this season’s Oscar race, Zero Dark Thirty is a fictional depiction, based on firsthand accounts, of the ten-year long pursuit and ultimate killing of Bin Laden. Director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter/producer Mark Boal have created such an engrossing film, that by the time the Navy SEAL team reaches Bin Laden’s now infamous Abbottabad compound, you’ll have forgotten that you already know how the events unfold. I personally was so engaged that I was hanging on the edge of my seat, anxious about what might happen next. Any film that can take such a heavily covered topic and subvert my knowledge of reality is worth seeing – and probably worth a few awards in this already competitive season.
Though it may not be entirely as it happened, Bigelow recreates the high stakes of this decade long mission by beginning with the events of 9/11, and then following CIA operatives through the harrowing process of hunting Bin Laden down. It fills in the gaps of what possibly happened leading up to May 1st, 2011, illustrating the struggle of deciding what to do in this seemingly impossible assignment. What exactly happened between 2001 and 2011? How could Bin Laden be found? How far would the CIA operatives have to go to find him? And could captured Al Qaeda sources give up any information that could be trusted? Graphic torture scenes in dimly lit cells are juxtaposed with the white walls of the CIA offices. Guerilla style handheld cameras are employed to make the experience more realistic, and extreme low-light is used in the final raid to make the viewer feel as though they are a part of the capture team. What emerges is a unique film experience: a fictional action/drama so naturalistic that it feels at times like investigative journalism. It is raw filmmaking that brilliantly affects the viewer to their core. Though parts may be hard to watch, I found it exponentially harder to look away.
What is most effective is that Bigelow humanizes this story by following the journey and the internal struggles of the CIA operatives. This adds a previously unexamined level to the world’s narrative of these events. While the human element is inherently written into the script, it is artfully brought to life by the ensemble cast, fearlessly led by Jessica Chastain and featuring Chris Pratt, Jason Clarke, Reda Kateb, Joel Edgerton, and Kyle Chandler, among others. Chastain is mesmerizing as Maya, the central character whose sole focus is to target and find terrorists. She delivers a nuanced, believable performance in a tough role, and unwaveringly carries the movie on her shoulders. It’s no surprise she’s a frontrunner for Best Actress at the Academy Awards this year. All of the praise heaped on her is undoubtedly deserved.
At 2 hours and 37 minutes, some may worry about the film’s length, though I wouldn’t let that deter you. I found this film to be so captivating that it flew by, and by the time it was over, was hungry for more. There’s much talk of Zero Dark Thirty being the sleeper contender this awards season, and having now seen it, I can understand why. Bigelow and Boal, who previous collaborated on the heavily awarded Hurt Locker, have proven once again that they are exceptionally adept filmmakers with the masterful Zero Dark Thirty.