Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

Kathryn Bigelow
2012 • 157 Minutes • 1.85:1 • United States
Color • English • Columbia Pictures

Cast:  Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Joel Edgerton, Chris Pratt, James Gandolfini
Screenplay: Mark Boal
Producers: Kathryn Bigelow, Mark Boal, Megan Ellison
Cinematography: Greig Fraser

Awards & Honors

Academy Awards
Nominated: Best Motion Picture of the Year
Nominated: Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role - Jessica Chastain
Nominated: Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen
Nominated: Best Achievement in Editing
Nominated: Best Achievement in Sound Editing

American Film Institute
Official Selection of 2012

BAFTA Awards
Nominated: Best Film
Nominated: Director
Nominated: Leading Actress - Jessica Chastain
Nominated: Original Screenplay
Nominated: Best Editing

Director's Guild of America
Nominated: Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures

Golden Globes
Winner: Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture - Drama - Jessica Chastain

Nominated: Best Director - Motion Picture
Nominated: Best Motion Picture - Drama
Nominated: Best Screenplay - Motion Picture

Screen Actors Guild Awards

Nominated: Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Leading Role - Jessica Chastain

Writers Guild of America
Nominated: Best Original Screenplay

Quite frankly, I didn't even want to use you guys, with your dip and velcro and all your gear bullshit. I wanted to drop a bomb. But people didn't believe in this lead enough to drop a bomb. So they're using you guys as canaries. And, in theory, if bin Laden isn't there, you can sneak away and no one will be the wiser. But bin Laden is there. And you're going to kill him for me.

It's right there on the poster: "The Greatest Manhunt in History."  Zero Dark Thirty is the procedural dramatization of the investigation to capture and kill the man the United States held responsible for the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and leader of al Queda: Osama bin Laden.  A film of such weighty subject matter was already going to controversial, but Bigelow's direction and Boal's screenplay made sure that this film would be on the minds of everyone who saw it long after the credits rolled. It's impossible to not have an opinion, positive or negative, on this film.

Chief among the controversy is how the filmmakers depicted brutal scenes of torture. Some critics (some who have not even seen the film) claim that depicting CIA agents torturing suspects during interrogation sequences is tantamount to the filmmakers condoning acts of torture as a justifiable method of obtaining information.  If one were to watch and analyze the film, one would realize that this is not the filmmakers' intent. Firstly, there are many close-ups upon the torture victim, forcing the audience to sympathise with him. Secondly, the results they achieve with the torture are negligible and the agents actually achieve better results when they treat the suspect with dignity.  The film does not set out to justify torture or aggressive tactics. However, don't mistake that it condemns it either.  The film is a procedural, and it shows the steps that Maya (an apparent composite of different real-life CIA agents) and her team took to capture bin Laden. Torture just happens to be one of those tools.  The rest of film plays out almost like a standard serial-killer film. In this case instead of a detective, you have a CIA agent. Instead of a serial killer, you have the world's most infamous terrorist. There are good leads, bad leads, chases, close calls and close captures. 

The film begins with a black screen. Playing in the background are sounds of phone calls and news reports and political speeches from the tragic day that came to be known as 9/11.  Immediately following this is the film's first torture sequence.  As stated before, the film neither condmens nor justifies torture... but by the end of the film it forces the audience to think: Was it worth it? Was killing Osama bin Laden and avenging the deaths of thousands of Americans worth losing our soul as a nation? The last shot of the film will leave you with that question.  You know how the film ends. S.E.A.L. Team 6 kills Osama bin Laden. But even though you know this fact, Bigelow keeps you on the edge of your seat with the built-up tension. There's no musical score during this sequence.  Just the silence of night and squawking of radio communication.  When bin Laden is finally killed... there's no celebration, no swelling musical score. It just happens and the film treats as just another event in the procedure. Anyone who watches this film and feels it is a pro-American patriotic film is not watching it close enough.  This is a movie about revenge.

We're in the middle of awards season and this film has been showered, deservedly so, with many nominations. Consistent among the award nominations is recognition for Jessica Chastain's performance as Maya. Maya, as stated before, is a composite character of several real-life agents. Much like S.E.A.L. Team 6, the identity of the real agents responsible for the investigation remain classified. (A sticking point with right-wing critics of the film is that perhaps the filmmakers had unauthorized access to top secret documents while making this film. This claim has been denied by the Obama administration.)  Chastain is heavy-favorite to win Best Actress at this year's Academy Awards, and it's easy to see why.  Chastain's Maya is at first seemingly unprepared to handle the investigation and unnerved by the tactics her team feels is needed to gain information. As the film progresses, however, she develops a toughness that is only outmatched by her determination.  This job defines her. She IS the  mission.  She has the final shot in the film all to herself, and the acting on display in this final moment before the credits roll earns her every nomination she has received.

Zero Dark Thirty is a difficult film with difficult subject matter.  Difficult subject matter leads controversy, controversy sparks debate. No film of the last year or, I predict, in the near future, will spark as much debate as this film has. It will be analyzed by both film students and historians for decades to come and will warrant multiple viewings.  Zero Dark Thirty is the best film of 2012.