When dealing with a Procedural Film, certain aspects must be made for the audience. The story must be made clear and understandable, there should be an anchor that drives the viewers forward and makes them invested in the events that have followed, and the direction and screenplay must be engaging. We’ve had a previous film, Ben Affleck’s Argo, which handled that type of film well enough through absolutely great direction. But Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, a film about the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, goes above and beyond on what a procedural film entails. Absolutely seamless, exciting, and a fantastic lead performance in Jessica Chastain, this is a film that just feels effortless.
Bigelow has gone down this route before, in terms of political films, with the more action-geared Hurt Locker. This was a film that retained Bigelow’s ongoing thematic ideals in many of her films of what drives a human to do the things that they do, the metaphorical drug that keeps them going in life. With Zero Dark Thirty, this next step feels like an absolute leap. Bigelow now has a drive in letting the story be told thoroughly, as well as convincingly. A story detailing the hunt for Osama Bin Laden could very well be a “walking on eggshells” scenario, but the storytelling done by Bigelow and her screenwriter Mark Boal do not take unnecessary detours and pit stops to keep this film from crashing.
Zero Dark Thirty is simply a train, in that it moves forward without absolutely no intention of stopping until its 157 minutes run time has ceased. The information given to the audience isn’t very “hold your hand” type of storytelling, but handled well in that it has the audience be engaged in what the characters are saying, or even thinking. Bigelow handles most of these scenes in more or less “acts”, given a simple title of where the story is going to be in regards to timeline, as well as what scenario the CIA is now dealing with in terms of Osama Bin Laden. Nothing feels out of shorts when the film switches gears to the next following mission, as Bigelow perfectly utilizes the real-world events of terrible terrorism that have been orchestrated by Bin Laden and his Al Qaeda group. There also isn’t the need to make some sort of political statement, much like her previous film The Hurt Locker, only to have the details brought to the audience and have them come out of this film with their own thoughts.
As for the performances, everyone is pretty much excellent across the board, but its Chastain that walks away from this film a complete and utter winner. She is Maya, the CIA operative that the audience follows right as she becomes involved with the Bin Laden manhunt. Most of the film Chastain brings a more subdued performance in the first acts, a quiet, intelligent storm that observes the things around her as a hopeful means to get Bin Laden. But, but by the middle and final act, she’s a fire cracking hound that will always be known and never ignored. This job is her “drug”, and she won’t recover from it until Bin Laden or any of his operatives are captured or dead.
The rest of the cast are more supporting players, with the most notable being Jason Clarke as a CIA operative in the middle of torturing prisoners who were associated with the Al Qaeda group. He brings a sense of exasperated vulnerability to the role, a man simply doing his job the only way he knows how. The rest of the cast play more of a bit part, from Mark Strong to James Gandolfini, and are all great in the scenes that they are a part of. The ensemble is just tremendous, especially the investment that they are given with the limited screen time that they have.
Zero Dark Thirty is this year’s Zodiac for me, another procedural film made in 2007 by director David Fincher that also knocked it completely out of the park. Bigelow made a film that knows where to trim the fat, but also allow exposition for the story and characters so nothing feels left out or forgotten. Kathryn Bigelow has simply a masterpiece in cinema and procedural films that is so utterly engaging and never boring, especially when the conclusion of this story is so well known.