A terrorist on the brain

Jessica Chastain brilliant as agent hunting bin laden

by Jase Howell

"Zero Dark Thirty" has drawn more than its fair share of controversy, some of it before it even opened. While the saying goes there is no such thing as bad press, the press on this film should be about Kathryn Bigelow's second tutorial on how to make an extremely intense fictional film about real life military endeavors.

Following up on her Oscar winning "The Hurt Locker," Bigelow sets her sights on the hunt for Osama bin Laden. Oddly, the film was already in production before the most wanted terrorist in U.S. history was actually killed. Talk about having to make revisions on a script. It would be interesting to one day see the script Bigelow was originally working on, with and exactly what kind of film it may have been; but for now, "Zero Dark Thirty" is more than enough, and as history has it completes what apparently would have been an open-ended manhunt.

In the opening of the film we here frantic calls of the 9/11 attacks, just as a reminder of the atrocities masterminded by bin Laden. Then we quickly skip several years ahead to a CIA detention post where an al-Qaeda member is being interrogated. The prisoner is in the process of being tortured by an agent (Jason Clarke), is water-boarded, threatened and eventually stuffed into a tiny box. Yet throughout all of this no information is gleaned, the torture proving to be fruitless. At one point, Clarke steps outside to confer with a masked operative who reveals herself to be Maya (Jessica Chastain), the films protagonist. Maya is frustrated the techniques are not working, yet she is determined to get the information the CIA is after.

Frustrated and determined pretty much sum up Chastain's brilliant portrayal of an agent who is intent on getting bin Laden at any cost. The hunt for the terrorist leader is the only thing in her life - in fact, it defines her life and who she is. But she has developed the theory that the only way to get the man is to find his courier. This theory is embraced by some agents, while others are more skeptical. Some have actually given up on the hunt, believing bin Laden is either dead or of no consequence.

Meanwhile, the torture tactics continue, and other methods are tried including killing with kindness. In another scene, the same prisoner who was water-boarded is offered food and cigarettes, while the agent pretends to be a friend trying to help. This works, and the prisoner gives some information.

The juxtaposition of such scenes are what have caused a bit of a stir regarding which methods work. Truthfully, I don't think Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal ("The Hurt Locker") are really trying to make much of commentary on the different methods, but rather just trying give a glimpse into how the agents were desperate to try any method as long as it provided some fruitful information. You could say killing them with kindness worked because the prisoner gave the information, or you could argue that the kindness only worked because of the prolonged torture. While this debate has proved to have some very inflamed positions, the film seems content to stay neutral.

Alas, the years drag on, and catching bin Laden the seems to be a battle that can't be won - except to Maya, who continues the hunt with conviction. Eventually, a strong lead on his whereabouts comes in, but by this point the agency is so jaded by false tips it is not interested. Maya, however, is convinced this is the real deal and pleads with the CIA director (James Gandolfini), who after much deliberation gives the green light. The mission carried out by Navy Seals composes a large chunk of this film. We know the outcome, but Bigelow handles the operation in such a fashion that it manages to be as intense as if we didn't know how it would end. It almost as if we're in CIA headquarters as it happened, watching it play out.

Forget the controversy or keep your views, either way you cannot deny that Bigelow has made an incredible film based on true events. This is not a documentary, and is not meant to be one. She handles every facet of the hunt perfectly from start to finish, creating a film steeped in reality and every bit as taut as "The Hurt Locker." As with that Oscar-winning film Bigelow could not have pulled this off without a great lead performance. In "The Hurt Locker" she had Jeremy Renner, here she has Chastain. In Renner's portrayal of a bomb squad technician we saw a man who could no longer cope in the real world and had to get back to the fight; with Chastain we get the feeling there isn't even anything back home, bin Laden is all she knows. When it's all said and done, Chastain delivers one of the most poignant performances of the year - without saying a word.