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Monday, January 7, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty



The grim, relentless Zero Dark Thirty directed by Kathryn Bigelow is the Best Film of 2012, if watching Jessica Chastain look at blurry satellite photos and trying to tell apart terrorists named Abu Ahmed from Abu Faraj is your idea of a cracking good time. In Chastain's defense, she doesn't enjoy it much either, but she's as deep in the hunt for Osama bin Laden as a girl can be. Later, when bin Laden's location in Pakistan is determined, Chastain introduces herself to CIA Director Leon Panetta (James Gandolfini) as "the motherfucker who found him". (CIA brass prefers to just call her "the girl".)

Recruited right out of high school by the CIA, Chastain finds herself in a "black site" two years after 9/11, learning the fine points of torturing terrorists from her spook mentor Jason Clarke. The lessons include how to waterboard and lock naked, sleep-deprived terrorists in wooden boxes. Chastain cringes at the torture at first, but she learns the torturing arts well enough that a few years later, she could teach a Torturing Arts class at Hogwarts. Given the choice, though, Chastain would prefer to cleverly trick or coerce a terrorist into capitulating information. But if that doesn't work, torture, while wearing a lot of dark wigs.

In just a few years after arriving in Pakistan (summing the place up as "pretty fucked up" to station chief Kyle Chandler from Friday Night Lights), Chastain becomes the point person for the United States effort in locating Osama bin Laden. Chastain lives through such real-life terrorist acts as the 2005 London bombings, the Camp Chapman attack that killed several CIA operatives and soldiers via a terrorist wearing a bomb, and she survives the 2008 Islamabad Marriott Hotel bombing. Chastain's life is also targeted by machine gun toting terrorists in Pakistan; luckily her car was equipped with bulletproof glass. 

The hunt for bin Laden lasts nearly a decade, time Chastain impatiently charts by writing the numbers of days passed in red marker on her boss Mark Strong's window. Spanning both the Bush Administration (curiously George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Condeleeza Rice, Donald Rumsfeld, Colin Powell, etc. are never mentioned) and the Obama Administration (Barack Obama is seen on television repudiating torture as an American tactic but he's only referred to in dialogue as "this President"), Chastain pursues her primary lead: a courier who has a high probability of working directly for Osama bin Laden. 

Chastain locates a heavily fortified safe house compound in Pakistan where she resolutely believes Osama bin Laden is running his entire network. (She accurately dismisses the idea of bin Laden still living in a cave as "pre-9/11 thinking".) Her bosses in the CIA hem and haw about whether bin Laden is there, offering a 60% probability. Chastain is certain: 100%. Those numbers were more than good enough for Obama.

Soon, Chastain finds herself at Area 51, briefing the SEAL Team who will be going out and "killing bin Laden for [her]." The SEALs include a noticeably buff Chris Pratt from Parks and Recreation and Joel Edgerton from Warrior, who look like they could be brothers. Outfitted with top secret stealth helicopters (one of which they somehow crash in bin Laden's compound), the SEALs penetrate the safehouse and indeed kill bin Laden in a tense, exciting payoff. Thus, the Most Dangerous Man in the World met his bloody, inglorious end, shot dead by a battle force lead by Andy Dwyer (or Bert Macklin, if you prefer). 

With a decade of her life (and 2 1/2 hours of movie time spent) resulting in the successful execution of the man behind the Worst Terrorist Attack in American History, Chastain enjoys her sweet, final moments of victory in Zero Dark Thirty by tearfully reflecting that when she was in Area 51, maybe she should have appropriated the Ark of the Covenant Indiana Jones left there. The SEALs opening the Ark and using it on him is something Osama bin Laden never would have seen coming.