ZERO DARK THIRTY (Kathryn Bigelow, 2012)

Solemn, fierce and combustible, Zero Dark Thirty, about the C.I.A.’s search to kill al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, is one heck of a thriller. It is a simple revenge plot—bin Laden masterminded the 9/11 and other terrorist attacks—crossed with the Erin Brockovich-thing where a headstrong woman prevails over all the male jerks in the universe. In short, as is the case with many thrillers, this one’s material is exceptionally thin. There is no background whatsoever about al-Qaida’s aims and ideology, or even about bin Laden as an individual. Perhaps scenarist Mark Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow felt that addressing such matters would slow things down. On the contrary, it is stretching their already thin material out to an incredible length that slows things down. How many times can we listen to Maya, the C.I.A. operative recruited out of high school, say over and over and over, in one way or another, “I am right, I am right, I am right”?

Just what is Maya correct about? The whereabouts of bin Laden: a fortressed compound in Pakistan a mile away from a military school. In actuality, “Maya” is a composite figure (where male jerks were part of the mix), and nothing in the film explains her certainty as to bin Laden’s hiding-place; call it “woman’s intuition” or just a stab in the dark. Unless I’m mistaken, Maya isn’t given a name until the end of the picture—a gesture towards implying that the mission matters above any individual; but this is bogus, or a case of too little too late, because Boal’s whole script is structured around Maya’s own “mission” to get bin Laden: an emphasis that unbalances the film.

Needless to say, Jessica Chastain (best actress, Golden Globe and several critics’ prizes) gives a spirited performance. Those familiar with Chastain’s appearance on Charlie Rose’s talk show know she is an unpleasant, foolish and, likely, unintelligent person; the role of Maya suits her to a tee. Especially nasty is the moment when Maya addresses her deposed station chief, whom she presumably helped get demoted, by his first name, adding condescension to treachery.

The title is military slang for the wee hours of the morning, when the Navy SEAL raid on bin Laden’s compound occurred. It must be said that this “dark” event is expertly handled by Bigelow and color cinematographer Greig Fraser. I kept wondering about the children in the compound, who are presumably blown up to bits.

Indeed, that is a valuable asset to the film: its capacity to make people think and ask questions: Do we really want the U.S. to target individuals, including innocents, for murder rather than bringing the criminals among them to justice? Do we want the U.S. to engage in torturing captives?

The scenes of torture in this film have drawn attention. However, I kept wondering whether Muslim men would not be visibly shamed or outraged to be stripped naked in front of Maya.

This so-so picture won a slew of prizes as best film and for director Bigelow, including from the New York critics and the National Board of Review.

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