Between 2009’s The Hurt Locker and this year’s Zero Dark Thirty, I think it is safe to say that director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal are making topical conflict dramas differently and more effectively than any filmmaking team working today. The Hurt Locker introduced a grounded, entirely apolitical approach to depicting modern warfare that erred more on the side of journalism than conventional narrative filmmaking, and for Zero Dark Thirty, Bigelow and Boal have completely immersed themselves in that style to explore the world of American intelligence. The film is not, therefore, as immediately accessible as its predecessor, the fictional elements of which allowed for more intimate characterization and emotional attachment, but with stronger storytelling focus and execution, Zero Dark Thirty is potentially more rewarding, and absolutely among the top films of 2012.
The film is about the CIA’s manhunt for Osama bin Laden, and though the depiction of the search is complex and multifaceted, there is no need for further description when explaining the plot. The manhunt is the story, and though it is focused around a real-life analyst crucial to the success of the mission – played by Jessica Chastain and renamed ‘Maya’ to protect her real-life identity – the film is disinterested in conventional notions of character arc or narrative progression.
This is a lifelike, hyper-realistic account of the events leading up to the May 2nd, 2011 raid on bin Laden’s compound, presented as dramatized journalism without slant, bias, or commentary. Bigelow and Boal are not out to deliver a message, fuel political fires, or provoke any particular response. They are simply depicting real and verifiable events to the best of their ability, events the audience will view and interpret based on individual perspective. The film gives back as much as the viewer is willing to invest, offering constant intellectual stimulation, ethical challenges, and procedural revelations to the discerning mind.
That’s the power of historical presentation done right, and Bigelow and Boal have mastered the technique with even greater precision and authority than they had on The Hurt Locker. Boal’s steady and straightforward storytelling simply radiates compelling authenticity, while Bigelow’s sharp and measured direction is a tense and engrossing wonder to behold. The filmmaking seems practically effortless in its invisibility, enticingly shot, scored, and assembled not for any ‘wow’ factor, but for maximum clarity and immersion. The process is the focus here, as we watch each step in Maya’s search unfold in precise, engaging detail. That’s the film, start to finish, and whether the focus is on torture, surveillance, or old-fashioned detective work, each element is approached from the same levelheaded, affectless position. Even the terrific and thrilling action-based climax is built around procedure, not the possibility for high-octane excitement, making for one of the most intelligently edge-of-your-seat experiences of this or any other year.
Jessica Chastain is the only performer with consistently significant screen time from beginning to end, bearing the weight of the film’s increasingly intense shoulders in spectacularly gripping fashion. She’s phenomenal, delivering deeply lived-in, understated work as a highly capable woman in a world where, for more reasons than just gender, the deck is stacked against her at every turn. Chastain simply commands the screen, more than living up the promise demonstrated in supporting roles throughout the last two years.
The film’s secondary performances offer a non-stop parade of gifted character actors, each inhabiting their parts with quiet force and precision. Jason Clarke, Jennifer Ehle, Mark Strong, Kyle Chandler, Édgar Ramirez, Chris Pratt, Joel Edgerton, Harold Perinneau, and James Gandolfini all make in an impact in relatively small parts, and as with the filmmaking, one never senses the seams between character and performer.
This is as smart and well crafted a drama as I have seen all year, a stark and harrowing peek behind the modern intelligence curtain that is both exhilarating and refreshing in its focus, clarity, and flawless execution. Zero Dark Thirty is one of the best and most unique cinematic efforts of 2012, deserving of all the praise, attention, and discussion it is bound to generate.