Zero Dark Thirty is the best motion picture of the year. Would that I could leave it at that, and let you discover its exceptional qualities on your own, but alas, this paycheck isn’t going to earn itself, and I have to explain further how this film pulled off the impossible.
What Zero Dark Thirty does is tell the story of how America hunted, for well over a decade, and eventually found and killed Osama bin Laden, the al-Qaeda leader responsible for the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington D.C. If you live on the only planet, as of this writing, capable of sustaining human life, this does not count as a spoiler. It stands to reason then that Kathryn Bigelow’s film about bin Laden’s capture should carry an air of inevitability. Like Titanic, we know how it ends. Unlike Titanic, Bigelow does not resort to romanticism to make the build up to her action-packed finale more palatable. Nor does she succumb to the sort of flag-waving sensationalism that made this year’s Navy SEAL love note, Act of Valor, forgettably simplistic jingoistic nonsense.
What Kathryn Bigelow does, and it’s truly sad that it feels so impossible, is just tell the damned story. She sidesteps the hot button issues, portraying in a manner that feels honest the brutal interrogation of terrorist suspects, only touching upon the political aftermath of that torture so much as it directly affects the characters. The story has not been “ripped from the headlines.” It has been carefully crafted by canny filmmakers who know how to tell a story without lofty speeches or slow-motion pans across devastation to remind us that, yes, 9/11 was a pretty big deal. The significance of the story is understood, and never emphasized more than necessary. This is a story about people with a mission, who did their jobs even though it was hard. That we eventually killed Osama bin Laden is not entirely the point. The incredible effort it took to actually make that happen is what counts in Zero Dark Thirty, and the cleanliness of that focus keeps the film grounded in honest to goodness drama that never fails to captivate.
Zero Dark Thirty’s protagonist is Maya, played by an exacting Jessica Chastain, who joins the effort to catch Osama bin Laden and curb the terrorist attacks of al-Qaeda at the start of the film and sticks with it to the end, long after her superiors and peers have either moved on to other positions or died in their attempt to bring bin Laden to justice. The mission sustains her, and through the enormous quality of Chastain’s performance, we understand her character. Her actions define her, her motivations define her actions, and her motivations are only revealed through those actions. Maya is a force of nature, whose humanity is affirmed in every scene, even though we learn little about her background or motivations. We know what we need to know. The same holds true for every aspect of Zero Dark Thirty. The film boasts a storytelling efficiency formerly reserved for classics like All the President’s Men and Chinatown. No part of the film is unimportant, and yet every part is played with the same forward momentum. It’s a razor blade of a motion picture: sharp, elegant, and direct.
The discipline it takes to present the story of Zero Dark Thirty without overplaying one’s hand is heroic. Kathryn Bigelow understands the greater significance of this material, but along with screenwriter Mark Boal, she’s wise enough to know that we do too. The film’s climax, with the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound playing in what feels like real-time, is a masterpiece of action filmmaking in itself. The threat is real, the consequences awe-inspiring, and the matter-of-fact presentation is daringly straightforward. This is all we need to see: what happened. If it’s not entirely accurate – it’s still a movie, after all – that is of little consequence. Zero Dark Thirty feels just right. It certainly feels like a classic. It might very well be one, but let’s not call it out just yet. Let’s let this movie play out. Let’s let it thrill us and inspire audiences with its dignity. For Zero Dark Thirty, like its protagonist, the accolades will eventually come. So take a moment, shed a single tear, and appreciate everything that has happened.