By Michael S. Goldberger
Special to the Observer
I figured it would be tense and exciting. I knew Mark Boal’s gripping screenplay, based on actual, firsthand accounts, would be informative. But what I didn’t count on was how eerily haunting director Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty,” about the hunt for and eventual assassination of al-Qaeda terrorist leader Osama bin Laden, would be.
Focusing on the heretofore unsung heroine of the true saga, a female CIA agent known to us only as Maya, the time spent rummaging through the modus operandi of evil takes a toll. The sheer horror of what befell us on 9/11 is relived, and the need for retribution is dramatically examined. It is time spent in ugly but sorrowfully necessary circumstances.
Even if you rethought things considerably in the flower power 1960s after originally growing up on John Wayne shooting his way to democracy at every historic opportunity, it can’t be escaped. It’s that patriotic tingle when first we’re shown the specially modified Blackhawk helicopters that will carry Navy SEAL Team Six to their date with destiny.
We’re reminded how thin the buffer that protects us is, and how great is the resolve to destroy all things American, whether because of religious belief, jealousy, class warfare or an aberrant combination thereof. It is impressed by one CIA boss who, angry at the lack of progress, screams, “There’s no secret cell also working on this. We’re it!”
That sends a shiver. But it’s the stone cold determination evoked by agent Maya, depicted with steely eyed intensity by Jessica Chastain, that best personifies the fire required to fight the fire. We see it after her arrival at a black site in Pakistan when she witnesses her first interrogation. While nary a wince from her, we mull the use of torture.
Expect no political correctness. There’s no trying to show the evildoer’s side of things. Considering the 9/11 prologue, it’d be an insult. This is a war movie about the new kind of war and what it takes to win it. And, save for a few moments where it can’t be helped, there is no great show of pride in doing what we must to protect our way of life.
Oh, but of course, like Jell-O, there’s always room for politics, from way up top right down to the field operatives. Convincing performances by good and bad guys alike, combined with a decrepit, third world atmosphere that makes you thank your lucky stars you live in the good old U.S. of A., powerfully establish the sociopolitical landscape.
Though injecting an artistic flourish here and there, Ms. Bigelow achieves a compelling integrity by steering clear of the clichés generally employed in most action yarns. Sadly, these facts need no dramatic embellishment, and by relating them so astutely, she fashions a nearly three hour film that won’t have viewers checking their watches.
We remain in awe as the director essentially ferries us through an arduously detailed Sherlock Holmes sleuther rife with blind alleys, false starts, painstaking investigation and undaunted dedication. The search for a needle hidden in a haystack that ostensibly encompasses the whole wide world hammers home the aloneness of America’s mission.
We won’t learn very much about the CIA agent referred to here only as Maya, except that she evinces many of the personality earmarks mystery writers love to imbue their protagonists with. She is a loner, exhibiting an economy of lifestyle bereft of all superfluousness, as if machine-honed specifically for the mission that is her obsession.
Adding a notion of humanness to the proceedings as well as a glimpse into the inner sociology of things CIA is Jennifer Ehle as Jessica, a senior agent who suggests the appeal of friendship to the younger firebrand. While mildly receptive, Maya nonetheless isn’t above criticizing that many of her older colleagues’ methods are just so Cold War.
Also effective in establishing the mood and aura of the narrative is Jason Clarke as Dan, the agent under whose wing Maya first learns her field craft. Controversial in that he’s a proponent of waterboarding and other interrogative methods that soon come under congressional scrutiny, he smartly personifies the inherent conundrum of his occupation.
Exemplifying the business and red tape end of things, that necessary contingent behind the selfless heroism, Kyle Chandler is Joseph Bradley, the top official in Pakistan. And, giving a piercing look into the enemy camp, Reda Kateb is torturingly credible as Anwar, the stereotypical detainee. The faint of heart will want to skip his searing inquisition.
An important film marking America’s resolve in the war against terror, and hopefully the turning point in the defeat of that cowardly scourge, director Bigelow’s pedigreed account raises the bar on what we expect from historical drama. We don’t cheer at the end, but rather, muse how “Zero Dark Thirty” is proof there is a time for everything.
“Zero Dark Thirty,” rated R, is a Columbia Pictures release directed by Kathryn Bigelow and stars Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke and Jennifer Ehle. Running time: 157 minutes.