Kathryn Bigelow’s ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ tells it straight, to varying effect

When Kathryn Bigelow walked away with honors for Best Picture and Best Director at the 2009 Academy Awards, she was the little guy. The narrative was David vs. Goliath as James Cameron’s “Avatar” was the big dog on campus, the money-guzzler, “the future.” This year things are a little different.

“Zero Dark Thirty” arrives amid a cloud of secrecy. Columbia Pictures — and Bigelow and Mark Boal — have been very careful about what is and isn’t known about the film, which details the near-decade-long manhunt for Osama Bin Laden. Even the particulars of Jessica Chastain’s character had been held somewhat close to the chest. But enough peek-a-boo.

The film is as clinical as they come, a 160-minute procedural. It details Chastain’s “Maya,” what may be a slight composite but is in all likelihood “Jen,” the woman recently heralded by the member of Seal Team Six who wrote a book about the final raid on Bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound. She came into the CIA young, entered the Bin Laden case early and did nothing else until he was confirmed dead.

And that’s literally all we know about her. This character is a machine. No back story. No real life outside of her work. We know nothing…just that she’s passionate. That either works or it doesn’t, depending on your point of view. On one hand, Boal isn’t doing a puff magazine profile here. This isn’t even shoe-leather reporting — it’s BOOT-leather reporting, and he’s managed journalism by way of the cinema in a brilliant way here. It’s a gift, really, to have so thorough an examination of these events.

On the other hand, one might prefer something to grab onto with the character, a greater sense of dimension, so that maybe the tear that streaks down her face in the film’s final shot — I don’t think this is a story that can be spoiled; we got him, y’all — might mean something more. But I submit that moment of release might not be hers alone. It might be a nation’s.

The rest of the cast fills out very nicely, an organic ensemble with highlights from Jason Clarke and Mark Strong in particular. Kyle Chandler and Edgar Ramirez are judiciously used and to good effect. When James Gandolfini shows up, it’s pitched just right. Jennifer Ehle, though not in the film for long, adds her own spark.

But Chastain is at the center. It’s her eyes we’re meant to see this story through. It’s her progression we’re meant to absorb (my wife noted to me the subtle changes in her hair over the years, from soft and wavy to straightened and serious to drawn back in a tight bun with aggression). And as driven as she is in the role, it’s still a role lacking a certain humanity. She’s The Terminator. But, again, this isn’t a puff piece. It’s cut, dry, facts.

Formally, the film is mostly paced out well. It starts to bog down in the middle but that’s by nature of what’s going on here. A lot of this stuff is inherently dull and repetitive. But that’s also kind of the point. When it starts mounting, however, the film builds masterfully, and to a final sequence that will rightly have you gripping the armrests of your chair.

Oscars? I mentioned to a colleague who’s over the moon and thinks it’s assured a spot in the Best Picture category that you might be hard-pressed to find another nominee this sterile. “All the President’s Men” might be a template. (Might.) It’s not a film of overt emotion…I’m tip-toeing too much there. It’s not a film of emotion at all, really, beyond that aforementioned moment. Even when tragedy strikes, the hunt just continues on. And, again I submit, that’s probably the point. I just wonder if that is the kind of movie that manages a Best Picture nomination, or whether the formal aspects and the nature of the film’s story are enough to get it there.

Bigelow’s direction is as crisp as ever. I still feel “The Hurt Locker” has more overall resonance, particularly thematically, but this is some top-notch work. I was reminded of “Black Hawk Down” a couple of times, not because of intense action scenes (it’s not that kind of movie), but for how high the level of difficulty is when you’re navigating material such as this.

Chastain is poised to enter the Best Actress race, sure. She might threaten a win, she might not. I’ll be interested to see how this dense, long film is received overall before really committing an opinion on that. But throughout the crafts, you could see respect paid. The film editing, the production design, the sound, all crucial.

And so the season marches on. “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” will screen by week’s end, with “Django Unchained” landing sooner than anticipated, in the first week of December (unless, of course, waves of screenings are again cancelled due to it not being ready). We’re almost there. Just about every trip to the theater this season has been a positive experience in some way. Will that trend continue?

“Zero Dark Thirty” opens in limited release on December 19.