“A lot of my friends have been killed looking for this guy,” says CIA operative Maya (Jessica Chastain) about the search for Osama bin Laden. “I believe I was spared so I could finish the job.” In a documentary style, “Zero Dark Thirty” follows the 10-year search. Maya is the central character. It’s difficult and frustrating, but she’s tenacious and single-minded. “Washington says she’s a killer,” a CIA agent reports. She has to be, dealing with dead-end leads and departmental resistance to her ideas. “It’s Maya against the world,” says another colleague.
What does Maya believe about bin Laden’s location? How is he found? Will you be gripped by this compelling narrative? I was.
As Maya, Jessica Chastain is truly excellent and convincing — dedicated to finding the al-Qaeda messenger who, she believes, will lead to bin Laden. But where is the messenger? What is his name? What does he look like? No one else shares Maya’s convictions. “I know this messenger is your baby,” says CIA colleague Jessica (Jennifer Ehle), “but it’s time to cut the umbilical chord.” Maya doesn’t. Jason Clarke is compelling as Dan, who administers water-boarding and other extreme interrogation to al-Qaeda suspects after the September 2001 attack on the World Trade Center. “When you lie to me,” he says to a detainee (Reda Kateb), “I hurt you. Do you want the water again, or do you want something else? I’m not your friend. I’m going to break you. Any questions?”
Others in the large and skillful cast include Jennifer Ehle as Jessica, one of Maya’s few friends, and Jeremy Strong, Harold Perrineau, Mark Strong and Stephen Dillane as CIA agents and bureau chiefs. Reda Kateb is Ammar, a detainee. Watch for Jeremy Irons and James Gandolfini in cameos.
“Zero Dark Thirty” is a serious-minded war story of the search for and killing of Osama bin Laden. The filmmakers tell us that their picture “is based on first-hand accounts of actual events.” A straight-forward narrative, it’s expertly crafted and low-key, without flag-waving. Its tension does not let up, but rises to a final night-vision re-enactment of the Navy S.E.A.L. operation of May 2011. Fine direction by Kathryn Bigelow from Mark Boal’s smart script. First-rate photography by Grieg Fraser, sharp editing by William Goldenberg and Dylan Tichenor, and restrained music by Alexandre Desplant. Nothing cheesy here.
Rated R for strong violence, brutal and disturbing images, and pervasive language, the film runs 157 minutes, but won’t seem that long. It’s an adult film that will leave you quiet and thoughtful, as the audience was when I saw it. There’s plenty to talk about on the way home.
Searching for bin Laden,
One woman’s conviction,
“Zero Dark Thirty,”
Gripping war non-fiction.