Long Time Coming, by David Bax
On the day Osama bin Laden was killed, network television’s evening programming was preempted by the announcement and by coverage of the nation’s reaction. People were literally dancing in the streets. For however many challenges and changes we’d experienced in the years since September 11, 2001, at least one chapter in the saga had ended with victory for the United States of America. The strength of Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, a retelling of the decade-long manhunt that culminated in bin Laden’s shooting death in Pakistan, is that she adroitly avoids building up to that historic moment as some sort of triumphant inevitability. Instead, she allows us a long look into those years in between. In 2005, in 2008, in 2010, what must it have felt like to be carrying out an investigation that had garnered little but frustration and more death? The further our intelligence community got from a known location for the al Qaeda leader, what did these women and men find within themselves to maintain fervor and dedication?
There are more than a handful of notable characters and recognizable faces in Zero Dark Thirty but there is no doubt that Jessica Chastain, as a CIA analyst named Maya, is the film’s lead. We meet her in 2003, a recently commissioned agent assigned to Pakistan to gain information using, among other methods, very harsh interrogations at CIA black sites. After quite a bit of time, she latches onto a longshot lead – a possibly mythical trusted al Qaeda courier – as a potential path to bin Laden. The rest of the film engrossingly details at length her sometimes unpopular pursuit of that lead.
I mention length because despite being essentially a straightforward and lean-seeming genre picture, the thing is over 2 ½ hours long. However, unlike this year’s conspicuously bloated The Dark Knight Rises, Bigelow makes cracking use of the runtime. As stated above, Maya’s hunch is a long way from a sure thing and Bigelow allows the full measure of the process to be felt in all its discouragement but punctuated with the occasional vindication that makes the next step worth taking. Additionally, the length of the film puts you in the same mindset of the characters. You’re a long way from both the beginning and the end of this thing and there are far more obstacles in sight than opportunities.
Over the course of this long and troubled investigation, numerous world events and foreign policy decisions that have nothing and everything to do with the search for bin Laden cause detours and speed bumps to appear for our protagonists. The scandal at Abu Ghraib alters the way they gather information. The election of a new president effects the moral goals of the operation. And the failure to find Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq casts a pall over the entire intelligence community, the colossal failure of that gambit making everyone skittish to commit too strongly to anything.
That’s a problem for Maya and anyone else here who depends on the say of their superiors to do their jobs. As one character states, they are not in a profession in which they deal with certainties. After all the gathering of information and all the analysis, they need someone to draw a conclusion; to have an opinion. The film’s main and plentiful source of tension comes whenever we confront the fact that the investigation only gets these guys so far. At some point, they have to choose how to act on it.
Whenever they or their enemies do act, Bigelow snaps into the action/suspense mode at which she has unfailingly exceled her whole career. There are loud and unforgiving gunfights. There are massive explosions. Bigelow and cinematographer Greig Fraser don’t take the opportunity to show off, like so many adolescent action directors. Instead, there is a far more resonant professionalism and efficiency to it. Like the Seals that carry out the final mission, this film knows how to act like it’s been here before.
Both the flooring, visceral scenes and the quiet moments of weighing instincts and rationality require the work of capable actors. Luckily, Bigelow has them. In addition to Chastain and a perhaps never-better Jennifer Ehle, it seems like every male character actor and up-and-comer has an important role here. Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Harold Perrineau, Mark Strong, Edgar Ramirez, Mark Duplass, James Gandolfini, Stephen Dillane, John Barrowman, Joel Edgerton and Chris Pratt are all present and all of them manage to make their mark.
Again, though, it’s Chastain’s showcase. She imbues Maya with confidence, to be sure, but there is also grace in the turns between Maya’s tragic callousness and her refreshing naivete. Most importantly, she (with more than a little help from screenwriter Mark Boal) never falls back on the easy and hollow idea that Maya does what she does for the benefit of those people who will one day dance for joy at news of bin Laden’s demise. A number of characters invoke the 3,000 Americans killed on September 11. But Maya has her own reasons. She wants to kill this man for herself. There’s something unapologetically American about that.
On the surface, Zero Dark Thirty remains ostensibly apolitical, hewing to the nuts and bolts of the procedural format. Yet one of the film’s real achievements is to communicate almost inarguably that what is political is intensely personal. And though we may, on rare occasions, take to the streets en masse, patriotism is a virtue that means something slightly different to each of us.