Jessica Chastain in 'Zero Dark Thirty' (Photo: Columbia Pictures)
With "Zero Dark Thirty," director Kathryn Bigelow's turns the hunt for Osama bin Laden into the ultimate episode of "Dirty Jobs." With the steely CIA Agent Maya (Jessica Chastain) driving the search, the movie slithers from Pakistan to Afghanistan to the USA, from 9/11 through multiple acts of torture and spy versus spy tradecraft to the final raid by the Navy SEALs that shut down the Al Qaeda chief permanently in 2011. The final sequence, the storming of bin Laden's Pakistani compound, recalls Bigelow's Oscar-winner "The Hurt Locker" -- but the preceding two hours is more closely akin to John LeCarre's "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy." There is not one moment of dead air or narrative padding. The movie ends once -- Boom! -- not three times and with a whimper. Engrossing. Complicated. Urgent. Spare.
Chastain and Bigelow: the Dream Team
Bigelow, as the first woman to ever win a Best Director Oscar in 2010, has shown a sense of conviction, purpose and single-mindedness in the thirty years that she's been making feature films. That spirit and will-power, not to mention talent, is echoed in the character of Maya, played by Oscar-nominee Chastain ("The Help"). Competence is a given. Maya's a looker (so is Bigelow), but she owns her beauty without exploiting it like some cheap femme fatale. Spy-craft, like moviemaking, is a predominantly male sport. It's a game a woman has to play particularly well, especially if she wants to be driving the train, as Maya does in the hunt for bin Laden -- and Bigelow does behind the camera.
Chastain could unseat Best Actress frontrunner Jennifer Lawrence.
Chastain has many things going for her besides her obvious talent and ability to play many different types of roles, and disappear despite her ginger hair. She plays a new kind of heroine, one that rarely raises her voice and when she does, it's a roar. Maya enters torture rooms and, while she might flinch at first, ultimately "mans up" when she realizes that the information that she needs will never be given over tea and biscuits with the enemy. Her character isn't softened in any way. She's not "humanized" with a romantic relationship. She acts tough not because she has a chip on her shoulder but because she's the chief crusader on a mission to fell bin Laden. It's a dirty job but somebody has to do it. Because of that, Maya seems in some ways like the modern adult extension of Lawrence's Katniss Everdeen. Also in Chastain's favor, is her nomination last year for "The Help" and her string of strong performances in "Lawless," "The Tree of Life," "Take Shelter" and "The Debt."
[Related: Top 10 contenders for Best Actress]
Bigelow and Boal: That Other Dream Team
When the Oscar nominations start coming out, the team from "The Hurt Locker" will be ready. Director Bigelow and writer Mark Boal make masterful movies that they also produce together. Boal's heavily researched script sifts through dense piles of material and Bigelow shepherds scene after scene onto the screen, keeping all the pieces in play and the suspense intact. Together, they deftly draw characters that hold the audience's interest, with motivations that make sense and inner lives hinted at but not over-explained. Bigelow-Boal dare to make challenging films that wed intelligence with craft.
The "Argo" Factor
Is there room for two movies about historic missions in the Middle East: one a rescue, and one a raid? Difficult question. The two movies are very different (though both do feature "Friday Night Lights" star Kyle Chandler). While "Zero Dark Thirty" has its dry laughs, it is a deadly serious, at times horrifying action movie. Ben Affleck's "Argo" is much, much lighter in tone and often plays for laughs to relieve the tension. Both are well-directed, written and acted -- but they are two very different genres. I believe there's room for both. It's likely that "Argo" will perform better at the box office and "Zero Dark Thirty" will have an edge at the serious critics' awards.
How does "Zero Dark Thirty" stack up against "The Hurt Locker"?
It's better. The epic scope covers ten years and hops multiple continents. Roughly, the first two hours involves the Agency searching for terrorists and information to thwart future attacks post 9/11 while seeking bin Laden's hide-out. That part of the movie, ratcheted up by unflinching torture scenes, is as tense as last year's Oscar-nominated "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy."
The raid on bin Laden's secret compound dominates the final 45 minutes. The action recalls "The Hurt Locker" -- but by the time it arrives, the audience has become so tense that the military action is almost (almost) a relief. The torture scenes are explicit but not sensationalized. In one scene, after Maya's been in the field awhile, she interrogates a suspect and uses a big beefy guy to throw the punches -- but it's as if she was doing herself. Torture is just another aspect of a very dirty job.
"Zero Dark Thirty" raises the theme of retaining humanity while doing inhuman things. While Chastain stands out as a woman walking that line for a higher cause, it is the compelling storytelling, not the actress, which is the star.
"Zero Dark Thirty" opens in limited release on December 19, and expands nationwide on January 11.
Watch trailers for "Zero Dark Thirty":
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