Zero Dark Thirty -- Director Kathryn Bigelow’s renaissance as a filmmaker is officially in full swing. After delivering movies like "Near Dark" (1987) and "Point Break" (1991) that were uniquely impressive enough to inspire a cult following, she spent subsequent years attempting to straitjacket her personal style into a more typical blockbuster formula.
Mediocre movies like "Strange Days" (1995), which was certainly not helped by ex-husband James Cameron’s hackneyed script, or Harrison Ford vehicles like "K-19: The Widowmaker" were so relentlessly conventional and formulaic that they managed to drain any excitement from their stories, becoming routine and humdrum in the process.
Since then, however, Bigelow apparently has had an artistic wake-up call, discovering that applying her tension-filled filming style to more realistic and modern settings is a much better fit. The result has been movies that manage to deliver the kind of onscreen intensity that most suspense movies would kill for.
This strategy first reaped rewards in 2009’s "The Hurt Locker" and was a surprise to many, suggesting that Bigelow’s preference for adrenaline rush action movie heroics had found a more welcome home grounded in the real-life pressures of the Iraq War. The film was so excruciatingly intense that it managed to capture the attention of the Academy, who voted it not only Best Picture of the Year, but granted Bigelow the first ever Best Director award given to a female director.
Crucial to the film was Bigelow’s canny decision to cast well-known Hollywood actors in smaller roles and having the random violence pervasive in the region claim more than a few of these characters in the mere blink of an eye. This upped the dramatic quotient of the movie considerably when you realize that anyone, no matter how big a movie star, could meet their demise at any moment. The result succeeded in creating a chaotic atmosphere of personal paranoia that is pervasive in a terrorist environment, making one of the most tension-filled films of the year.
"Zero Dark Thirty" captures that same level of intensity in its story of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, but also grounds much of the story in the political machinery of American governmental procedures. Much in the same way director Michael Mann was able to take the story of tobacco company whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand’s life and make superior, suspenseful entertainment out of it in 1999’s "The Insider," Bigelow similarly brings a rare level of intensity to many scenes which consist merely of "people talking in a room."
In fact, Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal deserve credit for not taking the easy route of a more conventional action hero movie here. Instead, they choose to specifically focus on the personal struggle of a young CIA agent Maya (Jessica Chastain) who becomes single-mindedly obsessed with the notion of taking down the al-Qaeda leader. The result is a thoroughly realistic display of political procedures and the formidable obstacles that are pervasive in such a full-scale governmental operation.
The ultimate payoff, of course, is the actual raid on Bin Laden’s fortress-like residence by an elite military squad of Navy SEALs in which Bigelow is finally allowed to flex her action movie muscles. In fact, coming after Maya’s all-consuming search for the world’s number one terrorist, this delayed event becomes a supremely cathartic experience, as the seriousness surrounding the grueling search for Bin Laden’s whereabouts comes to an unrelenting and highly rewarding conclusion. It is also to the filmmakers’ credit that these events aren’t glorified, but displayed with a matter-of-fact realism that allows the inanimate bullet-ridden corpses and resulting screaming children to bring the movie down to a more ambiguous, and ultimately, more human level.
In that respect, the relief Maya displays at finally witnessing Bin Laden in a body bag and seeing her decade-plus single-minded pursuit of the number one threat to the United States finally come to a conclusion is monumental. The final shots of her boarding a military plane as its sole passenger as she becomes overwhelmed with emotion are the kind of images that burn into your brain for a lifetime.
Nathan Hurlbut is a free-lance filmmaker and a regular columnist for the Arts & Entertainment section.