Although we won’t know which movie will win the coveted Oscar for best picture of the year until Feb. 24, there is no doubt which of the nine nominees is the darling of the critics. Metacritic.com posts reviews of critics from across the country who rate the movies on a scale of zero to 100, and “Lincoln,” the recipient of this year’s most Academy Award nominations with 12, also garnered and impressive 12 scores of 100 on Metacrtic.com. But “Zero Dark Thirty,” the powerful, provocative, and controversial film about the decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden earned perfect scores from 24 critics. And yes, it’s that good because it definitely lives up to its billing as “the story of history’s greatest manhunt for the world’s most dangerous man.”
Under the stellar direction of Academy Award-winner Kathryn Bigelow and with a screenplay by Mark Boal, this incredible motion picture is inarguably the most thought-provoking and perhaps important movie of the year. Although it was originally titled “For God and Country,” Bigelow said the title was changed to “Zero Dark Thirty” because “…it’s a military term for 30 minutes after midnight, and it refers also to the darkness and secrecy that cloaked the entire decade-long mission.”
At the beginning of the film, we meet Maya (Jessica Chastain), a young CIA officer who has been assigned to work at the United States Embassy in Pakistan with a fellow named Dan (Jason Clarke). Part of Maya’s early training involves going with Dan to a place known as the black site, where a prisoner called Ammar (Reda Kateb) is being held and questioned. Because Ammar has connections with terrorists, the CIA members think he can help lead them to bin Laden, and Dan and Maya actually manage to extract some important information from him.
But Dan ultimately accepts a transfer back to the United States, and Maya stays in Pakistan, where she devotes every waking moment to her obsessive investigation of information that may lead to the whereabouts of bin Laden. During the ensuing years, she steadfastly pursues her quest despite surviving an attempt on her life, living through the bombing of the Islamabad Marriott Hotel in 2008, and losing a friend and colleague in the 2009 attack on Camp Chapman.
Finally after years of painstaking research and surveillance, Maya and her team discover a huge dwelling in Abbottabad, Pakistan, where the latest intelligence strongly indicates bin Laden may be hiding. Although everyone is not completely convinced he is there, Maya never wavers in her certainty that she has found him, and after months of intense surveillance, President Obama ultimately approves the historic May 2, 2011, raid resulting in the death of one of world’s most despicable monsters.
Much of the controversy surrounding the film has been about its accuracy, and in the film’s production notes, screenwriter Boal explained how he obtained information for his script.
“Public affairs at some agencies were helpful, and then a lot of the reporting was done the old-fashioned way, with shoe leather, and sourcing and luck. My intention was to get as many first-hand accounts from those who were involved as possible, and I was at the end of the day fortunate to be able to write a script drawn almost entirely from first-hand accounts of the people directly involved in the mission.
“Obviously, unless you are making a documentary, at a certain point, you have to take off your journalist’s hat and put on your screenwriter’s hat to tell a great story. This is a movie after all. When you are detailing a ten-year manhunt and compressing those facts and that research into a two-hour movie, you have to tell your story efficiently.”
Because the story unfolds from Maya’s viewpoint, hers is obviously the most important role in the film, and Chastain’s portrayal of her is simply magnificent. As the film progresses, we see Maya become more and more obsessed with her mission, and one of the things we admire most about her is her innate toughness. We first see this exhibited in the icy impassivity she displays while watching Ammar’s being subjected to torture. And later in the film during a briefing about the Abbottabad, the CIA director (James Gandolfini) asks her to identify herself, and she replies, “I’m the motherfucker that found this place…Sir!” In the production notes, Chastain explained what drew her to the film and offered and analysis of her character in it.
“By page 20 of the script, I knew I had to play Maya. I immediately understood why she was so completely consumed and obsessed by this search. I thought it was one of the best parts I’d ever read; I just loved her strength and tenacity.
“The character made me laugh with how focused she can be on getting what she wants. The detail of the screenplay was amazing. Everyone in my generation remembers where they were when they heard bin Laden was dead — but none of us knows what it was like to be in the CIA hunting him. This story brings heroes like Maya, people who made a difference, into the light.
“I was really moved and excited by Maya’s arc. In essence, you see her grow up through the film, as finding bin Laden becomes a more and more personal mission to her. You see her start to lose her old self and become someone new. The very end of the movie is so interesting to me because it’s almost like she doesn’t quite know who she is anymore. And to tell that kind of emotionally complex and very real story about a character is why I do this.”
Despite her seemingly impenetrable outer shell, Maya does have a human side to her, and this is evident in the film’s final scenes after bin Laden’s body has been brought in so that Maya can see it. Although Chastain excels throughout the film, it is in these final segments that she does her finest acting because she conveys Maya’s joy, relief, and emotional exhaustion without speaking a single word. Acting just doesn’t get any better than this.
In addition the fine performances turned in by Chastain and all the supporting players, what makes “Zero Dark Thirty” such an amazing film is its general intensity. From the time it opens with a black screen and nothing but sound of the frantic voices of those trapped in the World Trade Center twin towers on 9/11 until the final credits begin to roll, this movie will grab you and hold you riveted to your seat. And even though we know how the raid will end, we still watch it unfold with a huge knot in our stomach.
It is yet to be determined whether or not “Zero Dark Thirty” (Give it a 20 on a scale of one to 10.) will win the best picture Oscar, but it definitely would get my vote if I had one. And I also have no idea why Bigelow was not nominated for best director unless politics played a part in the voting. However, it really doesn’t matter why she was snubbed because she was robbed.
Lastly, I think of this film as a fitting tribute to the men and women who dedicated 10 years of their lives (and in some cases died) during the hunt, to the courage of President Obama for approving the raid, and above all to the fortitude of those Navy SEALS who carried out the mission successfully. That kind of bravery defies description.