Director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal scored several Oscars, but little box office traction with 2009’s Iraq-set “Hurt Locker” Here, they go bigger and bolder by following the CIA and then SEAL Team Six as they hunt and eventually kill Osama bin Laden.
This is an openly controversial film. It invites scorn and bravado, as does any good piece of journalism. And this is a hard-hitting news piece a la spy/war film. A fantastic, bewildering, white-knuckle thriller, hard to easily grasp on a first viewing, but mesmerizing. In short, one of the year’s best, most complex films. A must see. But this is not the place for political debates, try that outside the theater in the lobby of The Lyric when the film’s end credits roll, and you have had a chance to collect your breath and walk.
I will say this, it is even-handed, and the political backlash against this film is insanely grotesque. Some on one side of the political spectrum demand a neon sign damning torture as bad. Another fears this film is propaganda for the guy in the White House because bin Laden went down on his watch. Both are wrong, or likely have been misled about the film. Obama, matter of fact, barely figures into the plot except for a brief appearance on TV, denouncing torture of prisoners-of-war. But, enough. Onto the film:
After we hear 911 calls from that terrible Tuesday over a black screen, we delve for 40-some minutes into the capture and – yes, it’s displayed in visceral drawn out reality — torture or an apparent terrorist at the hands of CIA operatives, as well as the back office paperwork and myriad details of the largest manhunt in U.S. history. The torture scenes hit hard. Our government denies torture ever took place. The film says otherwise. Take your pick of the truth from either side, or a bit of both. The detainee — one of scores of captured men seen put through various acts of distress — cracks a peep about a secret and favored courier for bin Laden. From there a tiny, illusive thread is tracked for a decade by Mia (Jessica Chastain), a CIA field agent who has no other mission in life but to find the Al Qaeda leader.
Leads dead-end, attacks rock London and elsewhere, colleagues are killed, and Mia is targeted by would-be assassins. It makes her more determined. Mia is an enigma, her inner character only partially revealed via child-made drawings on a wall and a daring taunt tossed at Leon Panetta (James Gandolfini). She is one rocking red head. Angry. Nice to see after the passivity of the female lead in “Django Unchained.”
The last hour, where bin Laden -– barely seen — meets his end, is flat-out riveting in its stark matter-of-fact rawness. Like the great book “No Easy Day” by SEAL Team Six member Mark Owen, “Zero” lays out the attack on the Pakastani compound we all know so well from after-the-fact news accounts. We follow the team members in, see the copter crash, the men jump, then doors come cracking open, and the bullets of our troops finding their targets. No music. No CGI. Just the hunt, SEALs doing their job.
A quick note: As with any film, dramatic license is taken, most especially during this climatic raid — see, Bigelow and Boal have their SEALS talk — talk! — inside the chopper as they approach their target, and then on the ground — shouting and what not — and that stuff never happens. Silence, always. Any one remotely familiar with Army tactics knows that. Paint ball war enthusiasts know that. You shout, talk, yell, you might as well draw a hand flare to bring on enemy fire. It is a small, but significant deviation.
Agree or not, political or not, Bigelow is making the best war films of our time. And Chastain carries the film on her back, her final scene tearing the lid open on her greatness as the leading actress of her generation. And Bigelow and Bola suggest that she Mia -– based on a real CIA agent, but also fictionalized and combined with the actions of others like her -– is our best hope of a good future, the brains who can tell the brawn where to go and hunt and get our enemies. Yes, she is an agent, but she is no super spy Jane Bond. She does not pop a gun or kick. Her weapons is her brain, her determination, he eye for detail and language, and a laptop. The new weapon of our day, the laptop. And it’s a long fight, and that’s what makes this film so fascinating – the time, the work, the frustration, as a 21st century nation hunts a man, or a group, who very much hide – in many cases – in a 19th century world. This isn’t a John Wayne rah-rah-rah war flick, it’s very much a slice of our reality for today, and likely years to come.
– Steven Mackay, Lyric volunteer.