‘Zero Dark Thirty’ a must-see espionage thriller

Published 9:19 am Friday, January 25, 2013

Rating: 4 1/2 out of 5 thumbs up

“We sleep soundly in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm.” —Winston Churchill

Churchill’s pertinent observation is a fitting reminder for audiences transfixed by director Kathryn Bigelow’s critically acclaimed espionage thriller, “Zero Dark Thirty.”

If you are remotely fascinated with the CIA’s efforts to track down Osama Bin Laden in the aftermath of 9/11, fasten your seat belts as “Zero Dark Thirty” is a must-see. The violent scenes within the R-rated film are plausible and handled tastefully by the director. The realistic locations depicting Pakistan and Afghanistan were actually shot in India and Jordan.

Screenwriter Mark Boal brings a high degree of authenticity to the film. His previous background as an embedded war journalist in Iraq provided him with extensive military and intelligence contacts.

The original two-year screenplay was centered on Bin-Laden’s 2001 escape from the Tora Bora mountains in Afghanistan. After Bin-Laden’s death by the hands of Seal Team 6 in May 2011, Boal rewrote his screenplay for Bigelow with whom he had successfully corroborated on the 2010 Best Picture, “The Hurt Locker.”

Throughout her career, Bigelow has been noted for innovative film techniques and risk-taking. The praise is well deserved.

The filming of the entire raid on Bin-Laden’s compound uses unprecedented, night-vision technology. She creates a breathtakingly palpable assault within the film’s final 45 minutes. Her accuracy is supported by author and Seal Team 6 participant, Mark Owens, within his 2012 New York Times bestseller, “No Easy Day.”

Boal and Bigelow acknowledge that many of the characters are fictitious and their actions exaggerated for an effective story. However the film’s publicity materials indicate that the heroine Maya is based on an existing CIA agent.

The filmmakers have declined to elaborate.

Contradicting this assertion is that of well-respected journalist Peter Bergen, whose 2012 New York Times best selling “Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Osama Bin Laden” is well researched.

The film is remarkable for its ability to sustain anticipation throughout the entire 2½-manhunt, especially when the outcome is known from the beginning.

Much credit is due to the acting talents of Jessica Chastain (“The Help,” “The Debt”) in her powerful performance as the determined Maya. Chastain effectively conveys a steadfast resolve to uncover Bin-Laden’s whereabouts amidst graphic terrorist interrogations, the death of co-workers and threats upon her life.

The developing obsession allows her to persevere and re-open leads that have fluctuated hot and cold along a 10-year trail. Her combination of thorough analysis and a highly probable hunch eventually trump her ambitious, male-chauvinistic CIA colleagues and provide the impetus for the presidential green light to assault the Abbottabad compound.

Among the notable supporting cast members are James Gandolfini (“The Sopranos”), whose role is that of Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta; Jason Clarke (“Lawless,” “Texas Killing Fields”) as a hardened but effective CIA interrogator; Jennifer Ehle (“The King’s Speech,” “A Gifted Man”) as Maya’s fellow CIA analyst and friend; and Kyle Chandler (TV’s “Friday Night Lights,” “Argo”) as a CIA station chief.

Critics and a few congressmen have condemned the film both for a perceived endorsement of enhanced interrogation and for a misleading link between the harsh techniques and the identity of Bin-Laden’s courier and ultimately to Bin-Laden.

But given the available knowledge of these coercive methods, how could Bigelow and Boal have told a credible story without addressing this issue in some format? Their intention based on public record was to simply tell an entertaining story about the human side of the intelligence community without any political agenda.

In doing so, they hoped to unmask the sacrifices, risk-taking, frustrations, tenacity and danger within this covert world. Perceptive moviegoers who enjoy the escape and entertainment value of film, will conclude that screenwriter and director have succeeded.

An outstanding performance by the lead actress, a believable, well- written script, and innovative directing, make this highly entertaining depiction of historical significance worthwhile viewing.

CHUCK LILLEY of Franklin is a retired corporate manager. His email address is chulill@yahoo.com.