The Essential Movie Library #81: Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

Filmmaker Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty is a masterpiece for its control and economy, its determined and relentless spirit

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Filmmaker Kathryn Bigelow was formerly a painter and brought to her earlier films more bravura and flair than sense or dramatic logic. Half a career later, her masterpiece about the hunt for Osama bin Laden is the best directed American movie of the century so far for its control and economy, its determined and relentless spirit embodied by the seething performance of Jessica Chastain as a CIA operative with a secret we never know. What we do know, from the beginning, is that the mission is personal, Chastain’s all-business veneer covering a pulsing national wound and rejecting the luxury of doubts that lap at the shore of her psyche. September 2001 has become such an obsession she barely can take satisfaction, however grim, when she finally unzips the body bag and acknowledges the target’s exploded face.

Zero Dark Thirty opens to blackness, and the sound of a conversation we immediately know is real without having to be told. Trapped on the high floor of a very tall building engulfed by fire from the airliner that has crashed into it, a young woman says, “I’m going to die,” while the emergency responder at the other end of the phone tries to reassure her otherwise. “I’m going to die, I’m going to die,” the young woman keeps repeating, her voice already unmoored from her few years on this earth, and pitched at some impossible place between hysteria and resignation. The emergency operator keeps promising help that both women understand will never come; the next two and three-quarter hours are haunted by this prolog that can’t be undone or rectified, just avenged. In preproduction Zero Dark Thirty was called For God and Country until the night bin Laden was killed; now the original unfilmed For God and Country is Zero’s twilit, alternate history, with its desperate cries for help from an earthbound skyscraper. Alone on her private air transport in Zero Dark Thirty’s final scene, at last Chastain sheds a single tear, maybe for her own private oblivion that’s inevitable, perhaps for the sister, girlfriend or stranger phoning years before from the flames of the 93rd floor.  

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