‘Zero Dark Thirty’ is Kathryn Bigelow’s masterpiece

Jessica Chastain delivers outstanding performance in 'Zero Dark Thirty'
Jessica Chastain delivers outstanding performance in ‘Zero Dark Thirty’

He tasks me! He tasks me, and I shall have him! – Khan Noonien Singh

The quote above is from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and it is all about Khan’s obsession with hunting down and killing Captain James T. Kirk.  Zero Dark Thirty is a much better tale of obsession, and is hands-down one of 2012’s finest.  While one hopes this is just the latest elevation of the talent of director Kathryn Bigelow, if it turns out to be her magnum opus it would still place her head and shoulders above almost everyone else.

In the aftermath of the tragedy that was September 11, 2001, Osama bin Laden became the target of one of the most intense manhunts in U.S. history.  This film tells the story of that manhunt and the effort to capture or kill the man behind the attacks of 9/11.

Jessica Chastain is “Maya”, a CIA analyst who arrives in 2003 at a secret CIA base to observe an interrogation before she assumes her new duty assignment at the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan.  “Dan” (Jason Clarke) is running the interrogation and the graphic brutality with which he conducts proves that he is well practiced at the art of torturing prisoners to get information.  He will mentor Maya in this role.

Navy SEALS raid Osama bin Laden\'s compound in 'Zero Dark Thirty'
Navy SEALS raid Osama bin Laden’s compound in ‘Zero Dark Thirty’

In the office, Maya clashes with another female analyst, “Jessica” (Jennifer Ehle) over how best to conduct this manhunt, to use their limited resources and protect the U.S. and its citizens back home from future attacks.  This is a view shared by “Joseph Bradley” (Kyle Chandler), the CIA station chef at the Embassy in Islamabad.  Their views don’t matter.  Maya arrived with a fixation on getting bin Laden and it rapidly grew into obsession.  So much so that she is ready to take on Dan’s role in interrogation, while he himself has had enough and goes back to Langley and CIA headquarters.

The idea is to find someone who is acting as a courier for bin Laden and use them to lead the U.S. to wherever he is hiding.  But things don’t go as planned and years pass without any practical intelligence that would lead to the world’s most wanted man.  U.S. lives are lost in the manhunt and eventually Maya becomes a target.

Eventually she locates the right information, enough to convince even Leon Panetta (portrayed by James Gandolfini) to recommend a mission be launched against the suspected hiding place of bin Laden.  Navy SEALs board stealth helicopters to go after him.

There is much to laud about this movie and barely anything to criticize.  The sound is particularly brilliant, combining with spectacular visuals to make the audience feel like the vibrations are from the rotors of a chopper rather than from pulsating speakers.  Jessica Chastain’s work here nearly defies description as most superlatives seem inadequate to articulate just how good she is.

Zero Dark Thirty raises the bar for military thrillers and future films in that genre will have to work extraordinarily hard to even come close to this masterpiece

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