ZERO DARK THIRTY (R) Because of a lack of quality new movies in release, Movie Pick this week focuses on Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty, which is still playing in town. Bigelow started out directing muscular genre movies such as Near Dark and Point Break, and proves to be a major exception to the rule that a director does his/her best work early on. With The Hurt Locker and now Zero Dark Thirty (both written by journalist Mark Boal), Bigelow has streamlined her style to a refined punch. There are no unnecessary character backstories, no flabby psychologizing. There's no extraneous direction either, flashy moments commonly mistaken for good filmmaking. Bigelow has honed her technique to a brutally efficient degree, a sort of dramatic minimalism by way of Anthony Mann.
The movie is set up as a police procedural: CIA operative Maya (Jessica Chastain) is plunged into the dark, morally ambiguous world of intelligence gathering post-9/11. At first disturbed by the use of torture utilized to obtain important info from prisoners (these scenes are uncomfortable and difficult to watch), she eventually becomes one of the agency's most obsessed agents in the hunt for Osama bin Laden.
Zero Dark Thirty is an action movie of sorts, but one concerned with data gathering and analyzing half-truths and lies extracted from interrogations that only incrementally lead Maya toward her quarry. Overt action finally kicks in toward the end when the Navy SEALs covertly fly into Pakistan and descend on bin Laden's Abbottabad compound. Even though we know the outcome already, Bigelow and cinematographer Greig Fraser masterfully execute the sequence, keeping things visually coherent and naturalistic in a manner that is antithetical to modern action movies. It's unbearably tense, but when bin Laden is finally shot, the moment does not come with a sense of elation. The revenge is dealt out, though Maya is clearly shattered by the realization that her life has lost meaning. Maya, a cipher whose only sense of purpose was to kill bin Laden, is now lost. Zero Dark Thirty may not be as non-political as Bigelow insisted it was when defending it against charges by some journalists (Glenn Greenwald, among others) that it was an apologia for torture, but it's hardly a simplistic jingoistic look at the so-called War on Terror either. It's a fascinating study of a character (and nation) striving for meaning and a way out of the deep dark woods.