by Tony Dayoub
Zero Dark Thirty begins with heart-wrenching audio recordings of 911 calls placed from inside the World Trade Center towers on 9/11. From there, the long awaited film about the manhunt for al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden follows a rigid three-act structure that is one part Michael Mann-style procedural—in which we get to know a protagonist simply through process—and one part meta-analysis of how America once again lost its innocence, possibly for good this time. That director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal frame this film through a unique perspective rarely found in war films—that of a female—is the key innovation. Instead of attempting to duplicate the action beats of their last Academy Award-winning film, The Hurt Locker (2008), by predictably zeroing in on the SEAL operation to capture or kill Bin Laden, aka UBL, Bigelow and Boal open up the canvas to spin a sprawling tale involving everyone from CIA field operatives to their more political Washington-based intelligence counterparts, from suspicious informants to the most trustworthy of military officers.
The filter through which we view Zero Dark Thirty is perhaps the least overtly threatening yet most indomitable character of all, a counter-intelligence agent only referred to as Maya (Jessica Chastain). Based on 'Jen,' the female CIA analyst identified in the pseudonymous Mark Owen's book No Easy Day, Maya makes for an effective way in, representing America herself in a sense. We first find her fighting the emotional discomfort of directly observing the interrogation of a low-level al-Qaeda operative. The man has been beaten, has soiled his pants various times, is subjected to waterboarding. He is even forced to crawl on all fours on a dog leash, a distressing reminder of the treatment received by Islamist prisoners in Abu Ghraib. But Maya soon hardens, becoming as unflinching in her pursuit of UBL as Bigelow is in depicting it onscreen. Chastain, who so memorably made her claim for stardom just last year, as the soft All-Mother in Tree of Life, is all steely sinew as Maya. Wisely, Bigelow and Boal avoid burdening Maya with contrived romantic attachments or father figures to hold her hand through the decade-long search for al-Qaeda's figurehead.
The male-oriented milieu of the War on Terror, an ensemble of ego-driven politicians, macho code-following soldiers, and geeky tech-heads are mainly there to give context to Maya's growing, self-induced alienation from the sheltered world the rest of us live in. When Maya is allowed into her first intelligence meeting with the CIA director (James Gandolfini doing a pretty good Leon Panetta) she is told to sit in the back of the room and be quiet. But when the bureaucrat wants to know who is responsible for locating UBL's hideout, she frustratedly responds, "I'm the motherfucker who found the house." Maya's nearly overconfident attitude is what allows her to survive among the overinflated male egos she comes into contact with. As she tells one co-worker, "A lot of my friends have died trying to do this. I believe I was spared so I could finish the job."
It's not hard to connect Maya's tenacious navigation through testosterone-laden waters with that of Bigelow, a female director who has proven noteworthy by directing "dick" flicks like Point Break and K-19: The Widowmaker in an industry itself top-heavy with male egos. Bigelow finds a point of identification in Chastain's gutsy, uncompromising Maya and places her at the center of the ultimate war movie for our times. Zero Dark Thirty lights a path for smart, driven women in a world populated by obstinate, self-involved men. But it also opens up avenues for Bigelow and Chastain this awards season. Chastain is a shoo-in for an Oscar nomination. Bigelow as well. And given its one-two punch with Oscar-predictors like the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Board of Review, who both awarded the film as Best Picture of 2012 in the last couple of days, I'd be surprised if Zero Dark Thirty isn't a serious contender for top honors in the upcoming Oscars ceremony.
What's most gratifying to see, however, is that Zero Dark Thirty is not the hagiographic celebration of our often misguided military some were worried it might be. The critical raid of UBL's hideout doesn't even play out until the final half hour of the film, and then only as the inevitable execution of Maya's plan. Instead, Bigelow has turned Zero Dark Thirty into a surprisingly personal character study about the underestimated Maya. Her entrance into the boys' club comes at a price, as her pursuit of the elusive UBL corrupts her guilelessness. After she confirms the identity of UBL's corpse she boards a military transport plane where she'll be the only passenger. The pilot tells her, "You must be pretty important. Where do you wanna go?" It's a question that, at this strange crossroads, Zero Dark Thirty seems to ask Americans as well. Where does America want to go from here?