Blackness, and sound. Zero Dark Thirty starts chillingly with voices played over an empty frame. No images are needed to remind audiences of the date they were recorded — September 11, 2001. For its first few seconds, Zero is a pictureless document of terror, and justified with the cry "I'm going to die, aren't I?" the film begins.
Kathryn Bigelow, the first woman to win the Academy Award for Best Director, has not strayed far from the movie that earned her that accolade, 2008's Best Picture winner The Hurt Locker. Praised for her gritty realism and unflinching take on the military and our American obsession with war, Bigelow seems to be developing a trademark kind of film. Speaking of The Hurt Locker, she stated, "War's dirty little secret is that some men love it. I'm trying to unpack why, to look at what it means to be a hero in the context of 21st-century combat."
She deals with these issues again in Zero Dark Thirty. Once more, she hones in on a protagonist that the audience might be afraid to call a hero: an individual who pursues their goal single-mindedly, to the point of self-destruction.
The main character in Zero is Maya (played boldly by Jessica Chastain, a rising star who first gained acclaim in The Tree of Life), a CIA operative who is in many ways similar to the bomb-diffusing lead of The Hurt Locker. Maya is repeatedly referred to as a "killer" by her peers; we are first introduced to her in a torture scene. Over the course of the film she neither seems to age nor relent in her hunt for Osama Bin Laden. We are told she looks tired and worn down, but Chastain always remains pale and perfect, a strange vessel for such grand and grotesque goals.
I find it hard to recount the story of Zero for it largely lacks a narrative. Instead, there is a series of facts that build upon one another — leads found by Maya, chances lost to passing time, sources unconvinced by interrogation, friends lost to bombings — which, as a whole, build a saga that spans almost a decade. There is little in terms of character interaction, obvious choices, and action. The film stages itself as a truthful retelling of the heart of the mission to find and kill Osama Bin Laden and does just that, without much adornment or digression. For two and a half hours, it progresses steadily through the history of what it tags "the greatest manhunt in history," centering the struggle on the figure of Maya. She is joined by colleagues like the tormented torturer Dan (Jason Clarke), the officious Joseph Bradley (Kyle Chandler), and the lively Jessica (Jennifer Ehle), but mostly, she stands alone, huddled in front of a computer screen, surrounded by her secret files.
Though I hate to look at a director's films in comparison, when viewing Zero Dark Thirty and The Hurt Locker side by side, there are differences that, in my opinion, make one of them the better movie. What made The Hurt Locker so striking was its piercing insight into the soul of a man at and in war, who was in love with war, who was lost in war, without losing a greater perspective on the war or its objectivity as a film. Zero does not make such a staggering observation. It appears content to stand back and let itself play as a documentary-style imagining of what it took to kill the bad guy. It does not occupy itself with many questions, nor does it openly take time to reflect upon them; rather, it is driven by its central plot with an intensity which mirrors that of its protagonist.
I can't say I particularly liked watching Zero Dark Thirty. Though visually interesting (and very orange tonally) and scored quietly by a favorite composer of mine, Alexandre Desplat, there was nothing that gripped me emotionally. I can appreciate the film as a work of historical significance and great interest politically and culturally. I'm torn about considering it a great movie, though, and even more hesitant to say that it is successful thematically. The film's best moments may be its last few seconds, which wrenchingly bring light to Maya as a character, but if it can't resonate until it's over, is it working a piece of a cinema?
Don't misunderstand. Zero Dark Thirty is a virtuosic display of skill from Bigelow, and features excellent performances from all of its actors. I recommend that you go see it, and I encourage you to enjoy it. But I'm not sure that Zero, even as a film more technically and artistically compelling than The Hurt Locker, manages to exceed the latter in electrifying power.