Kathryn Bigelow is the only female action movie director, a title that may even sell short how good her movies are, as they aren’t just explosion-filled popcorn movies. She’s been making films for 30 years, constantly about the expectations of gender roles in a male-dominated society and with an intensity uncommon in most American movies. To be utterly frank and even crude, Bigelow’s movies kick ass. Her films are tougher, more violent, smarter and have bigger balls than anything made by Michael Bay on his best day.
She is the first female filmmaker to win the Best Director Oscar, for her remarkable The Hurt Locker, and her gift for helming raw, uncompromised and enormously entertaining thrillers can be viewed in earlier films Strange Days, Point Break and Blue Steel, genre movies with uncanny technical prowess and shocking violence. Her career stalled 10 years ago with the respectable but high profile flop K19-The Widowmaker, a submarine drama that focused on the horrific condition of a doomed Russian crew. The Hurt Locker was her triumphant comeback and now, with Zero Dark Thirty, she surpasses it.
The hunt for Osama Bin Laden by a team of tireless young CIA operatives is, like The Hurt Locker, told without a political agenda or point of view, allowing the story to never become pro-Obama propaganda or even a commercial for patriotism. Instead of a Jerry Bruckheimer-style action movie or a military ad-turned-movie like Act of Valor, this shapes the hunt for the mastermind of 9/11 into a human story about the search for truth and how it can change those who become obsessed with finding it.
Like JFK and Zodiac, we follow a cluster of intelligent, even tempered young men and women who, over the course of many years, became fatigued by the dark, unexpected places the hunt for Bin Laden took them, on the map and within themselves. Following a respectful but no less disturbing opening of calls made during 9/11 by those trapped in the building, we immediately cut to a terrorist accomplice being tortured by U.S. military. These scenes aren’t easy to take but, right away, the dialogue and acting are on a sharper level than most other post 9/11 action movies, and the characters immediately draw you into the story.
Jason Clarke is exceptional as a strangely sympathetic torturer; the actor reveals deeper levels as the job of torture for the sake of “good” takes a toll on the character. An excellent ensemble cast of character actors give every role, even the smallest of parts, dramatic weight. Chris Pratt, James Gandolfini, Kyle Chandler and Harold Perrineau, to name a few, give their every scene a lived-in feel.
Best of all is Jessica Chastain as “Maya,” the fiercely committed agent whose unwavering commitment to finding Bin Laden is the heart of the film. Chastain is reportedly playing a real woman but also a stand-in for the film’s director, who can relate to the character’s being overlooked and undervalued for being a woman.
Bigelow remains in full command as a filmmaker, staging one difficult scene after another with the finesse and precision of a true film artist. Her film is long, grim and uncomfortably real but also riveting, never sentimental and, whether it’s 100 percent historically accurate or not, it tells a great story.
It never resorts to glossy, easy thrills or Hollywood glamorization, as even the climactic siege on Bin Laden’s hideaway is staged to emphasize fear and the loss of human lives without patriotic chest thumping. It’s also one of the many excellent scenes you’ll walk away discussing repeatedly after the film ends. Time will tell if this becomes the definitive film on the subject but for now, don’t miss this amazing movie.
Zero Dark Thirty
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Rated R / 120 Min.