A lot of things in this world come down to what version of the “Truth,” one accepts. When it comes to whether or not one believes the reports of a detained individual, one who has potentially been starved, sleep-deprived, or even tortured, the meaning of “Truth,” could be the difference between life or death, between stopping a terrorist attack or missing crucial intel that leads to the death of innocent civilians.
Film awards season is one of my favorite times of the year. I don’t particularly care for watching the actual ceremonies themselves, but the time between the holidays and early spring time usually brings with it plenty of compelling features to draw me to theaters. This year has been no exception.
Ever since I saw the first trailer for it, I’d been looking forward to checking out Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, starring Jessica Chastain (known for Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, and more recently The Help) and Kyle Chandler (of the Television Series, Friday Night Lights, one of my guilty pleasures). Given the rave reviews I’d come across, both from professionals and friends alike, not to mention the award nods Bigelow had received both for the film and her direction, it was only a matter of time before I made it to check this one out.
The story follows Chastain, cast as a CIA agent, who we are told was recruited directly out of high school to work for the agency, and has spent her entire (albeit short) career hunting Osama Bin Laden. From early on, we are led to look past Chastain’s beauty and delicate natue and see her as a “hardened killer.” We learn this by way of the description provided by her partner, Dan, played by the Aussie Jason Clarke (though, interestingly, with no discernable accent). Furthermore, Chastain gives off some of this same no bull-shit vibe in a few of her own quotes. When one of Clarke’s prisoners pleads with her for help, she calmly explains, “you can help yourself by being truthful.” By the time Chastain teams up with Clarke, he is mostly on his way out. He returns to DC to take a much needed respite from the intense line of work he has been deeply involved in for some time. Also, despite his warning, Chastain continues with the tactics of hard questioning, and even orchestrating torture of her own, including beatings and water boarding, though she often directs others to carry out the measures.
Later on, while attending a meeting to discuss a possible attack on the safehouse where Chastain believes Bin Laden is hiding, she answers the Director’s (played by James Gandolofini) question of who “this girl is,” with a curt, “I’m the motherfucker that found this place.” This response comes not only as a shock to Gandolfini, but also much to the dismay of her fellow less-senior team members. This quote serves not just to continue to build the reputation of her toughness, but also highlights one of the underlying themes of the film, a commentary on the place of women in the military, in particular in the intense and gritty places like detainee camps in Abu Gharib, Guantonomo bay, and interrogations that range from hardball questioning and even torture.
The film follows an interesting timeline, going back and forth between Chastain’s desparate chase for Bin Laden and chronicling many of the post 9/11 terrorist attacks, including those that killed innocent citizens in London, Pakistan, and elsewhere. After Chastain loses one of her only other female colleagues on the front lines (when a breached security measure leads to a car bombing by supposed Jordanian friendlies within the confines of foreign-based US military and intelligence camp), she turns up the intensity of her search, only to be pulled out when she becomes the target of an attack herself, while driving out of her compound one morning.
With the sour taste left in the mouth of the agency after the loss of several lives in the Jordanian attack, they didn’t want to take any second chances with Chastain and decided to pull her off of the front lines. Much to her dismay, Chastain was forced to relinquish her lead on the safe house she discovered and where she believed Bin Laden could be found. However, even from her removed position, Chastain does her best to stay on top of her superiors. She begins to note the number of days that have passed since the discovery of the presumed whereabouts of Bin Laden in bright red marker on the glass door to her supervisor’s office. As this number grows, so too does the pressure on the agency to do something. This portion of the film feels very reminiscent of another of this award’s season’s top picks, Argo, where a good portion of time is devoted to getting permission for a risky mission. One of the major challenges that both Chastain and her superiors face, is the hesitation of the “decision-makers” to pull the trigger on any attack that isn’t grounded in “certainty.” In another meeting of the minds, Gandolfini again goes around the table, asking each member on the team what ‘probability’ they’d assign to the chance that Bin Laden is actually hiding out there. When it gets to Maya (Chastain), she touches on their juxtaposing fear of, but also requirement for, certainty in saying, “I know certainty freaks you guys out, but it’s a 100%.” It is her confidence that ultimately pushes them over the edge and to green light the mission.
This same confidence, not only launches the mission, but also instills a similar confidence in the members of Navy Seal team 6, who will be the actual ones to carry out the attack. Chris Pratt (notably of Parks and Recreations), plays one of these seals. Even after Chastain has expressed her dislike for the oft lack of professionalism among their team, with their “dip and Velcro and all (their) gear bullshit,” but Pratt feels inspired by her same confidence- “I’ll tell you buddy, if her confidence is the one thing that’s keeping me from getting ass-raped in a Pakistani prison I’m gonna be honest with you bro. I’m cool with it.”
Other than the pace of getting a risky mission approved, the feel of Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, more closely resembles other feature war films from recent years, such as Black Hawk Down and The Hurt Locker. Interestingly, the key “mission,” involves the use of previously non battle-tested radar-avoiding helicopters and one of the only SNAFU’s in all of the missions, is one of these choppers getting too close to a building and going down after clipping a blade, much like in the 2001 film starring Josh Hartnett and Ewan McGregor. Not surprisingly, Zero Dark Thirty handles the difficult topic film dealing with the sensitive topic of detainee camps and torture as The Hurt Locker, led by a stellar performance from Jeremy Renner, does with the intense work involved in dismantling IEDs, as Bigelow was at the helm of both films.
The running theme of the film surrounding the role of women in the military, in particular, in areas as sensitive as interrogations, anti-terrorism, and torture comes to a fitting conclusion along with the eventual capture and killing of Bin Laden. After the return of Seal Team 6, while the team members are dumping and sorting their “loot,” from the raid, their commander, Admiral Bill McCraven, played by Christopher Stanley (of Mad Men) stands and waits by the body bag with an open phone line to some high-ranking official (possibly the President). He calls in Chastain to perform the final task, the one she has been waiting for since being recruited out of high school to hunt down Bin Laden. When she finally unzips the back and pulls back the cover to reveal the long grey beard and hated face she hoped to see, she simply nods to Stanley and he relays the message that the “girl,” has positively ID’d the target.
All in all, Zero Dark Thirty is led by standout performances from Chastain, Chandler, and Clarke. Given my preference for character-driven narratives, I would have liked to learn a little more about some of their personal lives. However, given the skill of Bigelow, it’s possible that this lack of character depth was intentional and meant to highlight the lack of personal lives that these individuals had outside of their mission to capture Bin Laden and help prevent the senseless further loss of lives.
It’d be quite the task to stack this intense film up against the others I’ve seen this season, but it is certainly in good company.