Friday, January 11, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty: The ultimate manhunt

Zero Dark Thirty (2012) • View trailer
4.5 stars. Rating: R, for considerable violence, torture and profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.11.13

Osama bin Laden was executed on May 2, 2011. Given the realities of Hollywood development time, production and post-production work, this film’s arrival in the waning days of 2012 is nothing short of remarkable.

When the SEAL mission finally comes together, Maya (Jessica Chastain) scarcely can
believe it. All her years of research, and of trying to persuade CIA superiors that she
really might have a lead on Osama bin Laden's location ... and now her work may
bear fruit. Or has she been pursuing a useless lead all this time?
That the result is this riveting, is icing on the cake.

It’s easy to understand why director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal would select this project as a follow-up to their Oscar-laden triumph with 2009’s The Hurt Locker. Although lacking that film’s nail-biting intensity, Zero Dark Thirty carries the same suspenseful atmosphere of docu-drama verisimilitude. Given the topic, American audiences also can’t help experiencing more than a little cathartic exhilaration.

Unseemly or not, it’s hard to resist the impulse for an exultant “Hell, yeah!” as we hit the story’s payoff.

Despite the perception that fact-based, politics-laden “procedural thrillers” (for want of a better term) are box-office poison, we’ve recently been gifted with two crackling efforts: this one and Argo. Both manage the impressive feat of generating tension and building to exciting climaxes, despite our knowing the respective stories’ outcomes long before entering the theater.

That’s no small thing. Scripter William Goldman’s handling of 1976’s All the President’s Men remains the superlative template for depicting dull-as-dirt research work in a manner that becomes not just fascinating, but downright compelling; Boal obviously took its lessons to heart. Zero Dark Thirty spends a great deal of time watching a lone CIA analyst beat her head against a vague investigative wall, yet these efforts never seem dull or repetitive.

In part, that’s because we know the stakes involved from recent history, and we’re genuinely curious to learn more about what went into this impressively successful covert operation: how the key pieces of information were determined and then properly analyzed. And if Boal takes some dramatic license along the way, well, that’s fine; cinema places its own unique requirements on narrative flow, not the least of which is building our emotional involvement with these characters.

Which brings us to the best weapon in Bigelow’s capable filmmaking arsenal: star Jessica Chastain. As the CIA analyst in question, she drives this story with — by turns — calm intelligence and righteous fury. She’s never less than wholly persuasive, whether cycling grimly through surveillance footage or standing up to overly cautious superiors too concerned about their political reputations.

Even Chastain’s quiet moments are laden with emotional depth, when she sinks, exhausted, into the austere quarters that have become “home.” We understand that this woman has no true home: no family, no friends, no lovers. Nothing but The Mission.

Bigelow opens her film on a screen that remains dark and blank as we listen to recordings — phone calls, radio transmissions — made from panicked and doomed civilians caught on United Airlines Flight 93 and in the twin towers on 9/11. It’s a grim prologue, much harder to endure than anything yet to come, and sets the stage quite effectively.

The story begins in the aftermath, as Chastain’s Maya, a CIA analyst and “targeter,” arrives in Pakistan on assignment from D.C. She joins Dan (Jason Clarke), a CIA interrogator trying to extract worthwhile information — by any means necessary — from a hostile detainee (Reda Kateb, as Ammar, in a harrowing, soul-snuffing performance).

The depth of Chastain’s performance emerges immediately here: Although clearly not wishing to be present — Maya’s face actually turns grey — she dare not display weakness in front of her new colleague. At the same time, she’s intrigued, in a clinical way, by what is taking place, and whether such torture is likely to produce useful results.

Maya’s strength lies in psychological evaluation; it’s the primary reason she was sent from the States. It’s therefore telling that when Ammar finally does open up, it’s through guile, rather than physical humiliation. Score one for Maya.

She needs the credibility, having joined a cluster of somewhat condescending agents under the command of Islamabad Station Chief Joseph Bradley (Kyle Chandler). They’ve been at this for awhile; they think they know how to distinguish good information from outright lies. Maya immediately gets into a subtle pissing match with Jessica (Jennifer Ehle), who represents the CIA’s “old school,” Cold War-based methods of seeking leads.

Maya knows better; she recognizes the need to distinguish pre-9/11 al-Qaeda behavior from what has become a much less predictable new normal. But Maya also understands that human beings are incapable of truly random behavior, when trying to conceal their activities, and she can perceive patterns in the absence of data.

Maya soon hones in on a name: Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, identified as some sort of al-Qaeda message courier. Over time, this shadowy individual is cited by several detainees, but the context varies: People claim to know him but never have seen him; he’s a “disappeared person” or even dead and buried. But Maya senses something significant.

Not that anybody believes her.

Years pass; little — if any — progress is made. Other successful terrorist attacks take place in London and at the Islamabad Marriott Hotel, where — conveniently, for the purposes of this story — Maya and Jessica have met for a drink. Viewers who remember these events will feel doubly sickened, knowing that the CIA and counter-terrorism units around the world are losing the battle.

The personal danger becomes too great; Maya is shipped back to Langley, where she now reports directly to George (Mark Strong), head of the Afghanistan and Pakistan Divisions of the CIA Counter Terrorism Center.

But she has left a surveillance operation behind, having persuaded Islamabad colleagues that — maybe, perhaps — there really IS something to the Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti lead.

By this point, Chastain’s Maya has become a figure of dour, angry determination, no longer able to endure the condescending “wait and see” stonewalling of colleagues and superiors who lack her conviction. We’ve already seen her uncork one helluva tantrum with Bradley, back in Islamabad; now in Langley, in the closest we get to a genuinely amusing running gag, she furiously notates the days passed, with no activity, in red marker pen on George’s office window.

Somehow, Chastain brings ever greater exasperation to her expression, each time Maya does this.

Strong delivers a pretty forceful speech of his own, when George fences with a presidential advisor in a White House corridor. Édgar Ramírez is memorable as Larry, an Islamabad surveillance specialist who eventually becomes persuaded by the depth of Maya’s convictions. The hawk-nosed Fares Fares is quite striking as Hakim, one of Larry’s operatives; Fares doesn’t say much, but he exudes intelligence and authority.

James Gandolfini pops up in the third act as the CIA executive director, and Brit-TV fans will be pleased to see John Barrowman in an eyeblink cameo as one of Gandolfini’s aides. Joel Edgerton and Chris Pratt dominate the climactic assault on the 38,000-square-foot compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, as leaders of Navy SEAL Team Six.

Production designer Jeremy Hindle deserves considerable credit for this film’s aura of authenticity, from the ambitious Abbottabad compound to the cramped corner desk where Maya does most of her initial work in Islamabad. Alexandre Desplat contributes a minimalist score that most often works subconsciously, as a means to increase anxiety, and then builds to throbbing intensity during the nighttime SEAL raid. (“Zero Dark Thirty,” in passing, is military jargon for the dark of night, and also the moment — 12:30 a.m. — when the SEALS first set foot in the compound.)

Boal and Bigelow worked rigorously to adhere, as much as possible, to established fact (and whatever classified information Boal reportedly obtained during chats with undisclosed CIA contacts). Maya’s character is based on an actual CIA analyst; the same is true of Jessica’s character. Joseph Bradley’s “outing” by elements of the Pakistani spy agency ISI references the December 2010 criminal complaint filed against a supposed American CIA section chief identified as Jonathan Banks, in connection with a U.S. drone attack that killed innocent civilians. At all times, in every respect, these events look, sound and feel authentic.

Which brings us to the sticky matter of the “enhanced interrogation” session that opens this film. This rising controversy, involving much beating of chests and high-level denials, threatens to overshadow the great work that Bigelow and her team have wrought, and could inflict genuine damage on possible Academy Award chances (perhaps tellingly, Bigelow’s direction isn’t included among the film’s five nominations).

And it’s pure nonsense.

First, and most crucially, who can really say? The folks possibly involved in such activity sure as hell won’t talk. Only a naïve fool would imagine that such lengths haven’t been taken, in the pursuit of information under extreme circumstances. Blaming a movie for supposedly “sullying” American ideals is no more than cheap political theater.

Second, it is a movie. However accurate the extensive underpinnings, we’re dealing with drama here ... not a documentary. Chris Terrio’s screenplay for Argo takes huge liberties with the third-act escape sequence, which wasn’t anywhere near that suspenseful in real life, but I don’t see Ben Affleck getting raked over the coals for this “betrayal of truth.”

At the end of the day, we should judge Zero Dark Thirty solely on its ability to entertain, enlighten and hold our attention. And in those respects, it’s quite impressive.

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