What do you get when you put a master of suspense, a tour de force of acting and the most fascinating true story of the last decade together? The answer is the inarguable masterpiece that is "Zero Dark Thirty." The film opens with a painful dose of recordings from 9/11 over a terrifyingly still black screen to give context of the relentless gruesome hunt to follow. We see the beginning of the search through the fresh eyes of Maya, an operative recruited out of high school, played by the immensely talented Jessica Chastain. In the torture scenes, she seems meek beside her experienced cohort Dan (Jason Clarke). As the search progresses, though, Chastain subtly transforms Maya into the inflexible passionate leader of the case, while Dan and Joseph (Kyle Chandler) let time and lack of progress deteriorate their drives. With more field operatives returning to D.C. to work homeland security, Maya fights for the only case she has ever known, intent on capturing the world's most wanted man. However, after 10 years of maniacal stress and endless bloodshed on both sides, Maya comes to the question of whether sacrificing her whole life for one target was really worth it.
When comparing Bigelow and Boal's two masterpieces, "The Hurt Locker" is an endless ride of adrenaline, whereas "Zero Dark Thirty" is a fast-paced political thriller, with not nearly as much suspense until the end. Bigelow does not treat the final assassination like an action sequence with quick editing and rapid gunfire. Like "The Hurt Locker," she stretches out the sequence as much as realistically possible to have your heart palpitating in anticipation.
Nothing can reaffirm your faith in Hollywood more than directors like Kathryn Bigelow and Tom Hooper, who win best picture, get more money and use that money wisely in grand productions like "Zero Dark Thirty" and "Les Miserables." A story of this magnitude just could not have been made with less money. More importantly, it could not have been handled with less care than from the thoroughly prepared screenwriter Mark Boal.
As a former investigative journalist who used his articles as a basis for the 2009 hit "The Hurt Locker," Boal is no stranger to creating pieces solely based on first-hand accounts. The research shows, and combined with Bigelow's distinctive camerawork, it makes the film seem like an enthralling documentary.
Compared to fellow Oscar nominee "Argo," which openly admitted to changing facts for entertainment reasons, "Zero Dark Thirty" succeeds with the knowledge that you are watching near-fact. Every event embedded in reality, like the suicide bomb attack destroying a U.S. military base in Pakistan or the navy seal plane nearly crashing into Bin Laden's compound, easily makes you shudder in memory. Though most would think it is okay for Boal to take creative license with the dialogue, he even includes some pivotal real lines like "Geronimo, for God and country, Geronimo" when Bin Laden dies.
Boal does more than just state facts, though. He transfers the real woman who spearheaded this mission onto screen, creating a cinematic female strength that can only be compared to Ellen Ripley or Clarice Starling. This flawed character of Maya, written and performed with captivating zeal and neuroses, gives a much-needed personal connection to what seems like an impossibly extensive subject.
The innovative writing can only be matched by the most precise and unbiased directing possessed in Hollywood's finest, Kathryn Bigelow. She not only stands as a role model for women in cinema, but for any filmmaker who plans to or already makes films of political or historical relevance. Despite what one may infer from the trailer or premise, this is neither an anti-America protest film nor a pro-America propaganda film. Torture is neither endorsed nor used as a symbol against America. The film simply shows what a completely ineffective strategy it was for the CIA, especially when Maya gets the information she wants by offering a prisoner hummus and tabbouleh. Bigelow is an expert in telling a story of this political magnitude in the most neutral of political opinions. Boal and Bigelow do not scream the CIA is bad or the CIA is good at us like we are children. They give the closest depiction to the CIA we are ever going to get, with a relatable character to weave us through it.
The cherry on top of this meticulous adaptation of historical events is its beautiful and bold Jessica Chastain, who never leaves the screen. Her portrayal of Maya solidifies this film as a human and not didactic story. When Bin is finally captured, the music does not erupt and nobody cheers as if it was a football touchdown. The audience is not cheering for America or reacting to the success of the mission, but only thinking of Maya and what she is supposed to do with her life now. The audience is at a loss as well, left shaking uncontrollably after watching the best film of 2012.