“100%, he’s there” announces Maya (Jessica Chastain) as she counters reservations from CIA operatives around the table. The discussion outlined in this crucial scene summates much of Zero Dark Thirty’s thesis; probability and calculation are the motivating force behind deploying Navy SEALs into a compound believed to house Osama Bin Laden. Consciously stripped of discussions on morality, Kathryn Bigelow’s follow-up to The Hurt Locker is of grander scale, more exacting and theoretical in design while surprisingly uninterested with extraneous political subtext. With only passing images of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Barack Obama, Zero Dark Thirty presents a conceptually atypical approach to political filmmaking – it dwells in a framework that analyzes the imbued nature of political duty.
If there’s one overarching thematic element to Zero Dark Thirty that captures something close to universal, it’s how Bigelow presents obsession. And if there’s one film to liken Zero Dark Thirty to, it would be David Fincher’s Zodiac. Both pictures are observational, though have a striking intimacy that quickly latches onto its audience. Zero Dark Thirty has a particularly unique method of accomplishing this, with an opening sequence that utilizes 9/11 audio placed over a black screen. Cries of distress envelope the audience, imposing itself as a shared experience that carries unique meaning to every individual listening. From here, a calculated search begins, where the analytical and primal are utilized. As teams obtain data, whether it is from analysis and reanalysis of surveillance video and telecommunications or brutal depictions of detainee torture, Zero Dark Thirty contends with Maya’s inhuman drive in capturing Osama Bin Laden.
Maya, like the central figure in Fincher’s Zodiac, is seen in various stages of duress, perpetually in search of ghosts. Her character is one of limited history – Maya’s introduction to the film can be likened to her own birth, whereupon she enters a compound housing a soiled detainee. Questions of her past, her relationships, whether she even fucks are posited and answered with a shrug. Desexed and removed of any history, this is where Bigelow and writer Mark Boal deviate from Fincher’s opus. The coldness exuded by Maya makes her something of an impenetrable character, someone of such improbable and rigid professionalism. But as a vessel, she’s the film’s most heroic of characters, and one of the few who exercises a level of compassion. As Maya interacts with various members of her team, the sense that she needs to get out of this hell serves as something of a veiled motivation. The obsession of finding a wanted man struck me in Zero Dark Thirty as something met because of forced urgency – perhaps forced out of reluctance.
Structurally, Zero Dark Thirty utilizes a plethora of title cards, whether it be to mark the date, place, or segue into different vignettes. It’s something of a bizarre structure, though it evokes a particularly impressive passage of time. Years can go by in a single title card, yet the anxiety that the film perpetually arouses and maintains rarely buckles. Boal’s scripting is particularly admirable, even if some of his procedural jargon gets lost amid the shuffle. But most clearly, Kathryn Bigelow emerges as the film’s most crucial figure, asserting herself as a director capable of immersing her audience in dense dialogue while moving over into some her finest displays of action filmmaking. As an admirer of many of her films, to see her growth from films like Near Dark and Point Break to Zero Dark Thirty marks a significant leap in her control and craftsmanship. I mentioned David Fincher’s Zodiac through this review for its thematic similarities but also as a barometer of Zero Dark Thirty quality. Everything about Bigelow’s effort elevates Zero Dark Thirty to an elite class of films – it’s something of impeccable design, calculated precision, and audacious scope.