Review: Jessica Chastain anchors the stark, uncompromising ‘Zero Dark Thirty’

I think two directors this year are following up the movies where they won Best Picture with films that I think are clearly superior to the films they won the awards for.  This is one of the reasons I think this entire season is so strange.  Politics are so clearly part of the process of what gets picked and what gets ignored that if you try to apply the filter of “deserves” or “fair” to the films you watch, you’ll go crazy.  In a perfect world, it shouldn’t matter what film Kathryn Bigelow made last, or what awards it won.  But because “The Hurt Locker” was the little film that could, and it did, the scrutiny this time around is on a whole new level.  Of course, she’s also collaborating again with Mark Boal, the screenwriter of “The Hurt Locker,” and this is also a military themed film, so they’re basically setting themselves up for the comparison.

I would love for the Kathryn Bigelow who directed “The Loveless” and “Near Dark” to sit down and watch “Zero Dark Thirty,” because the huge dissonance between the voices of those works would make her head explode, “Scanners”-style.  She started her career as a filmmaker whose work existed in an entirely artificial movie universe, and with “Zero Dark Thirty,” it feels like she has finally reached a place where she has stripped all artifice from her approach, and she’s made a film that is pure procedural, the “Zodiac” approach to the hunt for Osama Bin Laden.  I can’t tell you for sure that the film has anything to do with the unvarnished truth, but I can tell you that this feels accurate.  It has an integrity to it that is bracing and adult, and it manages to deliver a major visceral experience without ever once bending to Hollywood convention.  This is a film that knows exactly what it’s doing, and does it without compromise.

The film opens with a black screen and we listen to panicked radio transmissions and phone calls from September 11, 2001.  It is a very stark reminder of the emotional confusion of that morning, and we immediately jump into an interrogation sequence in which Jason Clarke (also good in this year’s “Lawless” as one of the Bondurant brothers) terrorizes a suspect played by Reda Kateb while observed by a brand-new arrival in Pakistan, a CIA analyst we know only as Maya.  Jessica Chastain had a huge year last year in a wide variety of roles, but the work she does here is terrifically impressive and unadorned.  Because this isn’t a traditional take on this sort of story, there’s no outside relationships through which she is defined.  She is her job.  She is driven by this task she’s accepted, and she isn’t written as a woman first, but as an analyst first.  Yes, the film acknowledges how she would be seen in a Middle Eastern environment, and it doesn’t try to paint her as some wild Dirthy Harry or overcompensate for who she is by making her hyper-masculine.  It is interesting, because in some ways, this feels like the most personal thing Bigelow has ever made, a movie about how someone can move in a world that is not used to making space to fit them and how they can succeed in that world without giving up the elements that personally define them.  Maya is smart, but not a Sherlock Holmes-style genius, and the process shown here is one that depends on perseverance, luck, and time.  And she’s not out there on her own, fighting the system, the way Hollywood loves to portray people.  She is someone who does the job, who works hard, who chases every single possible lead, and the people around her are just as good at their jobs.  Clarke does a great job showing what the personal effects are on someone who is required to use torture and coercion as part of his daily tools, and Kyle Chandler, Mark Strong, James Gandolfini, and Harold Perrineau all do nice work in positions of authority, just as Scott Adkins, Joel Edgerton, and Chris Pratt all do excellent work once the film finally moves into its final stretch and we meet the SEAL team that eventually dropped the hammer on Bin Laden.  Jennifer Ehle contributes a tremendous performance as another analyst on Maya’s team, and I particularly liked the way they etched their growing relationship without needing to pump up the friendship in some artificial way.

Over and over, the film dodges the easy version of a scene, and time after time, it pays off by making it feel real, observed, credible.  We all have our fascinations, things that we obsess about, and for me, the American intelligence community has long been a subject I’ve immersed myself in, reading everything I can.  Even so, I’m well aware that much of what intrigues me is what I can’t read about, the nuts and bolts work of how intelligence is gathered, how it’s sorted, how priorities are set.  “Zero Dark Thirty” plays to the CIA-nerd in me, and in a way that films like James Bond and the Bourne series can’t.  Those are action films and they completely ignore reality in favor of thrills, and I’m fine with that.  That’s what those movies are designed to do.  Seeing this film play it so real, then, is an unexpected pleasure.  It also occurs to me that there’s something great about seeing the international face of Muslim extremism taken down by the efforts of a thoroughly modern Western woman, a clear case of ideological symbolism played in a way that makes it feel authentic.  I don’t know if there’s a real-life Maya, but Chastain inhabits this woman fully.  It’s a very lived-in performance, and she continues to blow me away in terms of how much technical skill she exhibits as an actor, and yet how natural every choice she makes seems to be.  Chastain is one of those performers where I’m sure there’s a ton of craft behind every beat of what she does, but she never appears to be “acting.”

Greig Fraser’s cinematography is great and grounded throughout, but there is almost no other sequence this year that I can compare to the assault on Bin Laden’s compound.  Shot in no-light situations in several stretches, it is an incredibly staged sequence, tense and brutal and direct, and perhaps the single greatest expression of everything Bigelow’s worked towards in the staging of action over the years.  It was obvious early on that the most important thing about an action scene for her is immersion, trying to make it feel like something experienced and not just watched, and she’s pushed all sorts of stylistic technique to do that in her different films.  The first person footage in “Strange Days” is one extreme, and the hyper-kinetic work in “Point Break” pushes things in another direction.  Here, though, there’s nothing she does that feels like commentary or that feels like a trick.  It is the invisible nature of her work that makes it so effective.  Like Maya, she has endured well past the point when many people might have broken, and she stands now as one of the smartest working filmmakers, someone capable of finding exactly the right voice to tell a story and telling that story without any flourish.  There’s not an extra beat in the film, not a wasted scene.  This may not be like any other thriller I can name, but that’s one way you can tell that Bigelow and Boal have done something special here.  This is a hollowpoint bullet of a film, and it’s going to rattle around inside me for days as I reflect on it, and I look forward to seeing it again very soon.

“Zero Dark Thirty” opens in limited release on December 19, 2012 before going wider on January 11, 2013.