By John H. Foote
It is inconceivable to me that Kathryn Bigelow would win the Academy Award and the Directors Guild of America Award (DGA) for the fine war film The Hurt Locker (2009), then three years later actually surpass that achievement with Zero Dark Thirty (2012), be nominated again by the DGA, yet snubbed for an Oscar nomination! Bigelow became the first woman to ever win both the Academy Award for Best Director and the DGA Award for The Hurt Locker, breaking down the wall for women to win these coveted awards. Had ground been broken? Hailed before its release as a masterpiece, Zero Dark Thirty thundered to wins from the New York Film Critics Circle, winning Best Film and Best Director, seeming to push the film into major Oscar contention.
When the nominations were announced there were gasps when both Bigelow and Ben Affleck for Argo (2012) were shockingly absent as Best Director nominees. Was it male jealously that kept Bigelow out of the race in a male dominated branch? Her directing of this exceptional film was astonishing, giving the film the right amount of tension, thrills, and grim realism that comes when dealing with terrorism and war. She did everything right, she did more than everything right, and yet she was snubbed. For me it was among the most cruel omissions in the history of the awards, and the Academy should hang it head in shame.
Written by Mark Boal, who won an Oscar for The Hurt Locker, the narrative of Zero Dark Thirty is the near decade long hunt for the location of Osama Bin Laden, locating him and the precision attack on the compound which houses he and his family and the subsequent assassination of the world’s most hunted man. Thought to be in a cave hooked up to a dialysis machine for his barely functioning kidneys, Maya never believed this, thinking instead he would hide in plain sight. The search is a flurry of activity every day, for years.
At the centre of this hurricane of a story is Maya (Jessica Chastain) a relentless CIA operative who has spent years locating Bin Laden, dedicating her life to finding this man for what he did to America. She has made it her mission in life to understand the ways of the Middle Eastern people, to speak their language, to understand the ways of the Taliban and the terrorist group Al Qaeda. Seeking every bit of information she can find on Bin Laden, she pays attention to the details and, after years of searching, a false attempt that results in the deaths of some CIA operatives, friends of hers, she finds a link to Bin Laden. It is so simple, which is why no one guessed, something so basic, hiding in plain sight. Once located she has to convince the CIA chiefs that indeed, it is Bin Laden, and she does that. She is so sure, she tells the head of the CIA she is 100% sure, backing down to a smaller number when his silent stare intimidates her, but she is sure.
For more than three months she waits for the CIA to make a move, plastering her boss’s windows with the number of days they have known, pushing him to his limit. When they finally make the call to attack, she is flown to the Navy Seals base to brief the men who will kill Bin Laden. She tells them with absolute confident, “You’re gonna kill him for me” and her startling confidence stuns the warriors into her submission.
And they do attack, at night, and they do find Bin Laden and shoot him dead in front of his family, then calmly take his photograph for confirmation, send a text to Maya to confirm and just like that history has been made. The attack is nearly a disaster when one of the stealth choppers is destroyed, but the Americans manage to get all their boys back safely before the Pakistan military can react.
Jessica Chastain is a revelation as Maya, said to be a composite of two women, one in particular who is not named Maya. Always thinking, seething with indignation over 9/11, intensely focused, she is vital to the CIA, her razor sharp mind always whirring, in motion, she can think of nothing else but Bin Laden, how he thinks, what he might be doing, where he might be. And knowing him as she does, when she finds the location there is no doubt in her mind he is there. Her confidence might be taken as arrogance, recklessly so by her superiors, but they trust her, because she so believes in what she has learned. There is a vicious ferocity to Maya that makes her difficult to be around, impossible to get close too, but the very things that are off putting make her exceptional at her job. They realize, eventually, her entire life has led to this moment, to the attack on the compound. Her quest, her obsession makes for one of the most compelling performances by an actor in the last 30 years. Like Meryl Streep, Chastain possesses that innate ability to disappear under the skin of the character, inhabiting the character of Maya in every way.
We feel the weight of the decision making on Leon Panetta (James Gandolfini), the head of the CIA, as he listens to different opinions, finally trusting Maya to go with hers that indeed Bin Laden is in that compound. Equally fine is Jason Clarke as Dan, Maya’s friend and the first man she meets in the Middle East as he tortures a terrorist hoping for a name. He does so matter-of-factly, no malice, just an attitude of “I have to do this until you give me something” and of course eventually the man does. That name will be the one Maya follows for years to find Bin Laden’s location. Clarke is not sinister at all, just a man with a job to do, and he does it very well. Kyle Chandler is the base commander in Pakistan, often the target of Maya’s wrath, though he knows what she is saying is true about what will happen to him if she is right and he does not act.
The Seals are portrayed in cameos by excellent actors: Chris Pratt before he became a superstar, and Joel Edgerton, both at first questioning whether or not Bin Laden is indeed where Maya says he is, but each won over by her absolute confidence he is. No testosterone bravado as we might expect among the Seals, just intense, trained killers hired to do a job that they complete with precision planning and lethal confidence.
Bigelow shot the attack in real time. The whole operation, once landed, took about 15 minutes and despite losing a Stealth chopper, they were in the air within that allotted time with the body of Bin Laden. Using night vision goggles, we see what those Seals saw, plunging us into their reality, an astonishing choice by Bigelow. The cinematography, sound and film editing are absolute perfection through the film, but it is the stunning performances that carry the film.
Quite simply one of the most astonishing films of the last 30 years. Brilliant, unsettling and in every way remarkable.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.