"I can always go eat with another dude...hang you back up to the ceiling."
I was in calculus class, freshman year when the first plane crashed into the north face of One World Trade Center. I was one in a hall of about 400 students, when a handful of phones began to ring, then dozens more, all with the same horrific news. For the remainder of the day, I, like countless others was riveted to the television, watching the residual scenes unfolding in realtime. I'll remember that moment in the classroom, and that day for the rest of my life. Important events tend to do that, instantly searing themselves in our brain like an emotional polaroid picture.
After graduating from high school, Maya (Jessica Chastain) was recruited by the CIA and for eight-years has done nothing but garner evidence on the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden. Arguably the most thankless occupation in the world. Her first appearance in the film is in a dark, damp holding cell somewhere in Pakistan. It's clear that Maya hasn't spent much time in the field. She watches timidly from the corner as a fellow intelligence officer (Jason Clarke) brutally tortures an inmate. It's tough to watch and impossible not to sympathize. The prisoner is a terrorist, plain and simple. But if you can watch a man who's been beaten and waterboarded; a man who has defecated himself; a man that clutches a bottle of juice as tears roll down his eyes because it's the only form of sustenance he's had in days and not feel…something. Then perhaps a vital piece is lacking that makes us all human.
Zero spans a number of years, and highlights quite a few lows in America's war in the Middle East. The bombings at the Islamabad Marriott and Camp Chapman offer honest and brutal reminders of the atrocities that man can commit. A stark contrast to the beautiful destruction that enfolds Greig Fraser's cinematography. Equally stunning is Kathryn Bigelow's direction. Her filmography has been littered with select hits, most notably POINT BREAK and STRANGE DAYS, but her vision has been inconsistent at best. She gained instant credibility for her Oscar winning work on 2009's THE HURT LOCKER (powerful yet unsteady), and seemingly has found a niche for extreme conflict.
The cast is the greatest. Zero is littered with leading men and ladies but most are only present for a few, important scenes. Mark Strong, Joel Edgerton, Chris Pratt, Jennifer Ehle, Kyle Chandler, Édgar Ramirez, Stephen Dillane, Mark Duplass have all carried films and television series, yet here, they take a backseat to Chastain who is simply marvelous. Maya adapts to her surroundings; her demeanor soon mimics the desolate surroundings that she calls home. One exchange in particular serves to accentuate her transformation. After a compound is located which could be housing Osam Bin Laden, an assembly is called where Leon Panetta (Gandolfini), the C.I.A. director, asks the accompanying gallery how certain they are of the building's contents. A myriad of percentages are thrown around before Maya states she's 100% sure. Panetta asks who she is. "I'm the motherfucker* who found this place, sir."
*I reviewed SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK a while back. In it I commented on how silly Jennifer Lawrence looked while swearing. This is no problem for Chastain. She commands the language, and loves it. When she says "fuck," she doesn't say it as much as hiss it. It's incredible.
It's pretty staggering that all the pieces eventually fall together for Maya and her team after a painstakingly prolonged affair. There are countless interrogations, tips, and stealthy meetings all for the capture or death of one man. The production of Zero was equally trying. Bigelow was originally working with a script that detailed the futility of the American led siege for Bin Laden's apprehension. On May 2, 2011 when reports flooded in on his reputed death, screenwriter Mark Boal's ending for his original draft was scrapped, changed to one of more confidence.
The incursion on the enclosure almost seems like another film altogether. It is razor sharp in its execution. Its strength is conveyed in that for at least 20-minutes the main character is completely absent from the screen, and the film doesn't miss a single breathtaking beat. As Seal Team Six enters each room, we are uncomfortably close to the action. The majority of the action is seen through night vision which makes it all the more eerier. Chalk up special forces to the list of jobs I'd never want.
ZERO DARK THIRTY is memorable, because it's an important film. It begins with a black screen and garbled remnants of phone messages between loved ones, and ends with the assassination of a feeble mass murderer and the long-awaited removal of a near decade long obsession. 9/11 was an unforgettable time with enduring consequences. Watching ZERO DARK THIRTY makes you want to do greater things with you life.