“Zero Dark Thirty” is extraordinary not because it’s about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, but because Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow uses the subject to examine related, and equally important, topics.
In another filmmaker’s hands, the movie would likely have been something to tolerate during awards season before being forgotten. Yet Bigelow has created the best film of 2012.
Bigelow, of “The Hurt Locker” fame, is the only director alive that understands the complexity of violence. While others show its allure or repugnance, she shows both.
An example is the film’s hotly debated depiction of waterboarding and torture of accused terrorists. Bigelow presents it as an effective means of extracting useful information as well as a horrific practice that wears down everyone involved.
It’s a Rorschach test. Viewers may come away with just one viewpoint, but both are there.
Correctly described as “apolitical,” the movie barely mentions the two U.S. presidents in office during the manhunt, and it doesn’t deal with other partisan topics, either. It elicits an emotional, rather than political, response.
The opening sequence depicts 9/11 simply with a black screen, accented by a minute or two of sounds of frantic phone calls. The equally simple, equally powerful, final scene also tells volumes.
In the middle, the bulk of the story is played as a tense police procedural. One main character, CIA agent Maya (Jessica Chastain), drives the plot while minor characters float in and out of her life.
Over the course of a decade, Maya finds promising leads that turn into dead ends, and then unpromising little tidbits that turn into even better leads. It’s imprecise work that requires meticulous attention to detail and not much of a private life.
One memorable shot shows Maya with some rare downtime. Wrapped up in a burqa, she returns home with Red Vines and soda for dinner.
The excitement comes in the climax, a daring raid on a house in which bin Laden may be staying. The nail-biting sequence has such an immediate, intense impact that it almost obscures its dark, sinister nature.
“Zero Dark Thirty” also exemplifies Bigelow’s experience and skill as a crackerjack maker of B and genre movies such as “Near Dark,” “Point Break” and “Strange Days.”
Only someone with this résumé could get inside Maya’s story and make it compulsively watchable. Maya’s journey is similar to Keanu Reeves’ in “Point Break”: It’s dirty work, but it can be thrilling.