“Zero Dark Thirty” is, of course, military time talk for 12:30 a.m., which we all know is the darkest time zone of the human soul, when illusions deepen, fears take on discernible features.
And so it is with Kathryn Bigelow’s “Hurt Locker” big-screen, big-feature and powerful film that unpacks the truth and half truths about the raid to kill Osama Bin Laden.
Spoiler alert: Osama Bin Laden is killed. Yes, so how do we build the requisite tension? How do we lower the chills to the right temperature, and keep the dark bright enough to see the horrors and recognize the fear and trembling in the the faces of the heroes? How do we tell the heroes from the bad guys? Ms. Bigelow is in charge here as she was in “Hurt Locker,” and she leaves no doubt as to who is in charge of the show, or on the ground where the action is, and that would be the frighteningly powerful and gifted Jessica Chastain. Ms. Chastain is the chameleon among chameleons in films today. One minute she is a picked-on Southern sweetie in “The Help,” the next, an Israeli agent in “The Debt.”
Here, she is Maya, and that’s all you need to know.
Chastain cooks up her Maya for us, a few degrees at a time, coming in like warm butter at first, making us wonder how in the world this slender piece of butterscotch colored wisp of a breeze is going to become, for Osama, the destroyer of his empire. Inside the next hour, Chastain turns on the burners and becomes the fifth horsewoman of Osama’s apocalypse. If you thought she was cold as the assassin in “The Debt,” you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.
As we all now know, after months of previews and reams of back story, Maya pursues Osama, through the dark maze of his mysterious courier, like an Inspector Javert in a black pants suit.
Of course, she was no Lone Ranger riding into the desert on a solo white horse. The list of compadres by her side is a long one. It’s filled with talented and strong actors who etch the technical warriors and hands-on interrogators who live in the dark recesses of “black site-safe houses.” It’s here in dark rooms where water boarding and various degrees of the dark arts are performed: the water, 24-hour-a-day heavy metal music, heated boxes.
The master of the arts here, “Dan,” played by the rugged Jason Clarke, (“Chicago Code”) who whispers to his captive, “You lie to me, I hurt you.” And we believe him. Here, there are a few scenes involving waterboarding, but they are short lived. Contrary to punditville’s worries, they don’t play a big part in the film.
Mark Strong is a thunderous high-level CIA boss faced with one failure after another, and brings bad rain down his entire staff “Do you’re f—ing job and bring me some people to kill.”
The weakest moment is bringing in the mountainous James Gandolphini to play Leon Panetta, the diminutive CIA director. Not even a close call.
There are several shocking scenes taken from the true files, involving assassination attempts in Pakistan, that rock the screen.
The last 34, and most important minutes of the film, take us all into the night-goggled raid on Osama’s Islamabad house. Despite the fact that we’re all in on the outcome, it’s a nerve wracking and darkly thrilling caper. The SEALs team is played out beautifully with this band of brothers, who walk into the darkness and come out with their dead captive in a body bag. The final moments show them sitting in the returning craft as they stare down at their infamous trophy.
“Zero Dark Thirty” has a stellar cast of actors playing out the CIA agents and Al Queda captives: Kyle Chandler as Maya’s impatient boss, Wahab Sheikh, Alexander Karim and Simon Abkarian.
It’s hard to see, even after great films like “Lincoln,” and “Silver Lining Playbook,” stealing all the honors, that “Zero,” with Greig Fraser’s camera and Mark Boal’s brilliant writing, would not be coming in as the best film of the year. That Ms. Bigelow was not nominated for best director is one of this year’s biggest blunders.
J.P. Devine is a former stage and screen actor.