(Kathryn Bigelow, 2012)
Bigelow has always been an exceptionally talented director, and to my money, at least three of the movies she directed before her years in a sort of career wilderness (Near Dark, Point Break and Strange Days) can safely be called "great". But at the moment she is probably riding a wave unlike any she has ever before seen in her career. The critical success of the masterfully focused and incisive The Hurt Locker meant that her next project carried a massive level of expectation. And, given the chance to choose her own subject matter, she has moved away from pure genre material and chosen to take on more of an "A-Picture" in the form of Zero Dark Thirty.
This film, written again by her Hurt Locker partner Mark Boal, traces the tortuous attempts of the CIA to find Osama Bin Laden across the Middle East for over a decade. It focuses on Maya (Jessica Chastain, superb) a rookie agent who lands in Pakistan in the early stages of the hunt and stays with it - while others burn out and fall away - until the job is done.
As such, it is absolutely crammed with scenes of people talking intensely in offices and corridors, stuffed with (mostly fascinating) procedural detail and filled with a bewildering array of character actors and familiar faces in even the smallest moments.
Bigelow's previous work has often focused upon characters suffering from an unhealthy obsession with somebody else, but this film is perhaps the ultimate expression of that theme. Maya has nothing in her life but her determined pursuit of "the Sheik", and a personal loss only increases her ferocious determination, yet her colleagues come and go, get promoted and die while she stubbornly follows a single theory.
There are basically three sections. In the first, Maya works with Dan (Jason Clarke), interrogating prisoners and using torture to obtain the smallest scraps of information. These controversial torture scenes are unflinchingly brutal and their very presence stains the efforts of the Americans through the rest of the film. It seems insane to me that anyone could say that this film glorifies torture or credits it with a role in the death of Bin Laden, especially since the crucial lead comes from a piece of information obtained by a combination of trickery and kindness to a detainee.
The second section follows Maya as she works her theory - involving the importance of a single courier, who she believes represents a direct link to Bin Laden - over years of investigation and toil, climaxing in the efforts to find the man in Pakistan.
The final, often suffocatingly tense section focuses on the preparation and execution of the mission to kill "Geronimo" by a team of Navy SEALS (most notably Chris Pratt and Joel Edgerton, but also fleetingly featuring Scott Adkins and Frank Grillo) , all watched by Maya from a distance.
This structure allows Boal and Bigelow to address a few big themes. America and its place in the world is an explicit subject, but just as important is an urgent critique of the way men see - and more importantly, don't see - women in the workplace, and there are numerous interesting themes and ideas cropping up throughout the film, from the bureaucracy of power and embassy politics to the uncertainty of risk assessment and the personal toll taken by obsession.
Bigelow is brilliant at quickly evoking time and place, and this film beautifully fixes the atmosphere of market squares in Abbatabad and teeming streets in Karachi and Islamabad, while also reeking of the smell of Embassy offices and stakeout vehicles. Boal nicely sketches character in few sequences so that characters like Kyle Chandler's station chief, Edgar Ramirez's Field Team leader and Jennifer Ehle's agent are all vividly rendered without any awkwardly expository scenes. The fine cast is obviously helpful here, and the strength of the work from some sensational actors in tiny parts is a big component in the success of the film, as is the score by Alexandre Desplat, which remains subtle until the action amps up at the climax, when it suddenly recalls John Barry in its stirring urgency, and the typically excellent cinematography by Greig Fraser.
And it is incredibly successful. It manages to be both epic, with dozens of locations and characters spread over the course of a decade, while remaining somehow intimate and pared-down. It is 160 minutes long, but it feels pacy and streamlined, is gripping throughout and manages to rise to highs of emotional impact at crucial junctures. It is never dumb or patronising, yet its ambiguities are provocative and mean that it lingers long in the mind after its haunting final scene. It is always clearly a thriller, yet it echoes films like Zodiac, All the Presidents Men and The Insider in generally avoiding the cliches and tics of that genre, and it works just as well as a drama until it shifts into a different gear and setting for the last reel.
That last half hour delivers on the climax supplied by history, and it is an extraordinary set-piece; grittily textured, precisely paced and utterly intense, it reminds us of what a talented director of action Bigelow has always been.
It is only in the last few years that she has been acknowledged as a great director beyond genre, but Zero Dark Thirty makes that abundantly clear. It is the best type of American cinema - accessible and popular yet ambitious and personal. The best mix of arty and entertaining, really, and something of a masterpiece.