By Eleanor Ringel Cater
Kathryn Bigelow doesn’t fool around.
She never has. Think of the tense and ultimately explosive opening of “The Hurt Locker.” Or the fatal pick-up outside a bar in her vampire-cum-biker flick, “Near Dark.”
In her Oscar-nominated movie, “Zero Dark Thirty,” she goes straight for the jugular. The screen is black and on the soundtrack we hear a building babble of voices, which — it’s almost immediately clear — are real-life phone calls made from those trapped in the World Trade Center on 9/11.
If that doesn’t shake you up (still), I don’t know what will.
Bigelow intends to bring us back to the fear, the confusion, the sheer horror of that day. And it works.
That’s because she wants us riled up all over again, so that the methods the CIA uses to extract information are seen in the context of that outrage and loss.
I don’t intend to make a case for or against several of the methods used (most notoriously, waterboarding). I’ll let editorial writers debate that. Besides, I was too focused on the main character, a frail-looking redhead named Maya (Jessica Chastain) who’s new to the information-extraction game.
The big tough guys around her worry she may not be able to take it and, yes, she does flinch occasionally. But when the boss is questioned about Maya’s, well, cojones, the man replies, “Washington says she’s a real killer.”
And, it turns out, she is. Even if only by proxy.
“Zero Dark Thirty” wants us to know that the agent who finally tracked Osama bin Laden to his long-hidden (from us) lair was a young woman. And a young woman who, like the heroes of most political thrillers, must buck authority to get the job done.
This is a payback movie that embraces blood vengeance. But while her spiritual movie twin may be Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry or Charles Bronson in “Death Wish,” her procedural mentors are Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as Woodward and Bernstein in “All The President’s Men.”
It’s slow methodical work, treeing a terrorist of such stature. But that’s what’s needed. And when friends and colleagues are killed, she speaks with an almost messianic zeal: “I believe I was spared so I can finish the job.”
For Maya, Osama bin Laden simply Must Cease To Exist.
That’s it. She has embarked on her own private jihad.
The film is full of smart supporting performances, from James Gandalfini as a paternalistic CIA director to Jennifer Ehle as another agent with whom Maya becomes friends (It’s never stated, but it’s fairly clear that girls still aren’t all that welcome in the boys’ club after-hours).
Both Steven Spielberg and Penny Marshall chose to end their films, “Schindler’s List’ and “A League of Their Own,” respectively, with the real-life people on whom the pictures are based. In both cases, I found the decision morally admirable and aesthetically wrong-headed.
Bigelow does something of the same thing here, but in a different way. She devotes the last 30 minutes or so to the raid on bin Laden’s compound. The screen is all stealth helicopters and night-vision hand-held mayhem. I can see why she wants to honor Navy SEAL Team Six; as with Marshall and Spielberg, it’s the right thing to do.
But I think it weakens the film. Naturally Maya isn’t on the mission and she is reduced (sorry) to the woman waiting at home for the menfolk to return, a movie image as old as D.W. Griffith. True, she is the one who identifies the body to make it all official, but we’re a bit whirled around. Maya has been our point of identification and yet, she’s spent the last half hour standing by a tarmac with her arms folded.
Well, again, I honor, understand, yet protest the last part of “Zero Dark Thirty.” But no matter what Bigelow might’ve chosen otherwise, she’s made a riveting and important movie.
P.S.: The title, “Zero Dark Thirty,” is military talk for when the raid began, at half past midnight. It took me a while to find that out, so if it’s mentioned in the movie, someone please let me know where.