January 14, 2013

Review: The Manhunt – Half Past 'Zero Dark Thirty'

essica Chastain Kathryn Bigelow | Zero Dark Thirty

Based on first hand accounts, Zero Dark Thirty is a thrilling, dispassionate procedural drama about the long mission to find and kill Osama bin Laden. We follow one dogged CIA agent—an imminently compelling Jessica Chastain, referred to only as "Maya"—and her ten-year search. The team behind The Hurt Locker, director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal, have crafted an extraordinarily impressive dramatization of one of the most famous manhunts in history.

How did America find and kill Osama bin Laden? Through sheer detective work and intelligence gathering. Following leads, pounding the pavement, and questioning sources. It is an incredible journey full of mostly standard, straightforward, seemingly boring yet satisfying follow through. We move from acts of terror and investigations, starting from 9/11 and towards the ultimate goal. It's a doggedly frank portrait told with a great ensemble cast and many layers to the story.

There's been great controversy over the film's depiction of torture as an intelligence gathering tool. The first act is almost entirely about the very specific torture of one suspect leading to other clues. The torture is raw, difficult, and ugly. Bigelow shows the ramifications and ultimate consequences of it. It's one small piece of America's antiterrorist journey. The lack of humanity and harshness of it is compelling and disgusting. It absolutely does not glorify torture but acknowledges its use and the reality of combating terrorism. It's inclusion is far more "complicated and unresolved" than many would have you believe.

There are no heroics. Chasing bad guys is shown as rough, bureaucratic, and soul crushing. Bigelow presents her thorough composites, compression, and dramatic licenses based on actual events and plainly presents situations. Chastain disappears, like a cipher, through sheer domination and a powerful performance, anchoring not only the film but amalgamating ten years of geopolitics.

The final act as SEAL Team Six enters the compound in Pakistan is wholly thrilling. It's tense, cinematic, and wondrous. It's a huge payoff for two hours of screen time and ten years of searching. It's one of the best written, cinematically rendered, intensely visual sequences from on film in recent memory.

Zero Dark Thirty is a masterful, enthralling achievement in procedural storytelling, reminiscent of Zodiac, except because of its real life events, far more satisfying. This accomplishment, despite all the baggage of a post-9/11 world, politics, and the public's familiarity with Osama bin Laden, is nothing short of remarkable. Bigelow and Boal have crafted a rich, methodical, thoughtfully convincing docudrama of one woman and a whole nation's manhunt for an elusive enemy.

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