Reviewers have given high-fives to director Kathryn Bigelow for her film Zero Dark Thirty, which is the decade-long story of intelligence operatives searching for Usama Bin Laden. Bigelow, director of another fine war film The Hurt Locker, definitely deserves the accolades, but the heart of this movie is the brilliance of Jessica Chastain’s portrayal of Maya, and she is as indispensable to this film’s success as was Jeremy Renner in The Hurt Locker.
Those of you who remember Chastain as the kind-hearted Celia in The Help will not recognize her here. She enters the intelligence community in the days after 9/11 as a slightly green operative who is sent to work with Dan (a fantastic Jason Clarke) as he interrogates Ammar (Reda Kateb), an al-Qaeda terrorist. We get to see Maya’s reactions to Dan’s waterboarding Ammar, and all the other indignities that can be dumped on him until he breaks, and her facial expressions are a roadmap to her conflicted soul.
Bigelow has received some criticism about glorifying these now illegal interrogation practices, but nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, Dan’s actions are ruthless and inhuman, but taken in context of the time and place they were what happened. Maya’s cringing at the sight of these things is the filmmaker’s way of telling us that she doesn’t condone it, but like any good reporter might, she is relating the events as they happened.
The “hunt” for Bin Laden is chronicled in many administrative twists and turns and, as Maya becomes more seasoned over the years, it becomes understood that she is no shrinking violet but rather a tiger in a business suit. Chastain takes us along as Maya emerges from the cocoon as an iron butterfly, and while she still has a conscience she also maintains an eye on the prize.
After a meeting with a high-ranking terrorist goes awry and leaves operatives dead, Maya slinks down and seems to be defeated. But when asked a question she rises to her feet and says that she is going to get all those responsible for this and then she is going to kill Bin Laden, and we believe every word that she says.
Bigelow certainly has assembled a great cast, including Kyle Chandler (Joseph Bradley), Jennifer Ehle (Jessica), Harrold Perrineau (Jack), Jeremy Strong (Thomas), and James Gandolfini (C.I.A. Director), which supports Chastain throughout the proceedings. Locations in India were used for the filming to add authentic visuals, and Mark Boal’s screenplay is top-notch and offers great conflict and dialogue for the characters.
Above it all Chastain rises with a radiance that refuses to be extinguished even in the darkest moments. There is such clarity to her acting, such precision in her choices of movement and facial reactions, that she is utterly believable as Maya. When she briefs the Navy S.E.A.L. team before they go on the mission to Bin Laden’s compound, she stands in front of these towering men like a little prizefighter. They at first seem to dismiss her as a petite woman, but she explodes with authority and they (and we) believe without a doubt that Bin Laden is hiding in that compound.
Zero Dark Thirty is not just a great war movie, it is an amazing film that chronicles one of the most important historical moments in the early years of this century. The film is nominated for Best Picture, Best Actress and in three other categories, but I am astounded that Bigelow was not nominated for Best Director. This brings up the age-old question: how can a film be nominated for best picture if the director is not nominated for best director? But that’s another story.
Chastain has already won the Golden Globe for this role, and she should be locked in for Oscar gold as well. Forget the politics and the violence of the story (of which there is a plentitude), and go to the theater to see Chastain shine in a fine film that has grit, heart, and soul. Her astounding performance is one for the ages.
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