‘Zero Dark Thirty’ is a little methodical, but still innovative

Ryan Pait

Much like its main character, Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty” is a rather emotionless entity. Except for the final scene, there are hardly any outward displays of true feeling.

Consider “Zero Dark Thirty” as the antithesis to Tom Hooper’s “Les Misérables.”

While the movie is based on the hunt for terrorist Osama Bin Laden, Bigelow’s approach to this quite sensitive topic is rather clinical and procedural. The film’s advertising cites it as “The Greatest Manhunt in History,” and that is exactly what the movie feels like: a large-scale police procedural.

Bigelow pushes buttons right from the start. The first 90 seconds of the movie are pure black, starting with a title card placing us at Sept. 11, 2001. Bigelow uses real-life audio to let that part of the story tell itself. It is a bold choice, but it works. Everyone has seen the imagery associated with those sounds, so Bigelow just provides the audio and lets the audience do the visualizing.

Most of the movie rests on the character of Maya, a CIA agent portrayed by Academy Award-nominee Jessica Chastain (“The Help,” “The Tree of Life”). This is a wise choice on Bigelow’s part. Chastain is more than capable of shouldering the burden of a sometimes-murky story, and she is a phenomenal actress. She has a long and interesting career ahead of her.

Rather than resorting to cheap hysterics or outpourings of emotion, Chastain is as rigid and unflinching as a pillar. She is the core of this film, the human nucleus in a world of classified and confusing intelligence information. She also provides some much-needed comic relief with her wildly-inappropriate potty mouth.

Chastain’s performance reminded me a lot of Jodie Foster’s in “The Silence of the Lambs.” Like director Jonathan Demme and Foster in “The Silence of the Lambs,” Bigelow and Chastain are not concerned with Maya’s gender — she is simply an agent who is doing her job. Other critics have cited Chastain as the frontrunner for Lead Actress Oscar this year, and I will say this: Jennifer Lawrence has some stiff competition.

“Zero Dark Thirty” also provides Bigelow with multiple ways to exhibit her mastery of tension and suspense, which she also captured in her previous film, “The Hurt Locker.” Bigelow’s film recreates some of the terrorist attacks that the world has seen over the past ten years, and her execution of these scenes is brilliant, especially given the context: we all know what is going to happen, but Bigelow manages to keep the audience on the edge of their seats.

Much praise has been bestowed upon the film’s climax, which portrays the killing of Bin Laden. Bigelow stages and executes these scenes exceptionally, and the climax of “Zero Dark Thirty” would not feel out of place in an action movie or thriller.

There are some problems with the plot of the movie. Using a screenplay by Mark Boal (“The Hurt Locker”), Bigelow’s film condenses the past 10 years into a two-and-a-half-hour film. While the film is technically long, it does not drag.

However, there are parts where the execution of the story is inscrutable. Bigelow uses title cards sporadically throughout the film, and the overall effect is confusing. I could not decide whether or not this was intentional: perhaps Bigelow wanted the audience to feel just as lost and confused as the characters. Either way, it works, even if it detracts from the film as a whole.

“Zero Dark Thirty” is a worthy competitor in a year of exceptionally strong movies. While it is not as strong as “The Hurt Locker,” Bigelow’s latest effort is one that should be commended both for being a masterful exercise in tension and restraint and for Jessica Chastain’s unwavering performance.

“Zero Dark Thirty” may be about the killing of Osama bin Laden, but it is a validation, not a celebration.