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Casus belli

Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

Jonathan Olley/Columbia Pictures

Kathryn Bigelow has defended "Zero Dark Thirty" with the carefully turned phrase "depiction is not endorsement." As a noted practitioner of other arts in addition to filmmaking, as well as the small matter of being a ferociously willful director with nerves of steel, Ms. Bigelow is no doubt well aware that depiction in fact provides the most significant endorsement any art can provide: an endorsement for the viewer to think, rather than to vegetate; to see rather than unsee. At the very least the film throws new light back onto "The Hurt Locker," where she and writer Mark Boal can now be sensed kindling behind the camera, unfinished business on their minds about how the residents of Camp Victory came to move in.

The superficial similarities with the earlier film last about five minutes, since "Zero Dark Thirty" is much closer to the broad canvases and barreling momentum of Ms. Bigelow's 1980s and 1990s films. An epic mosaic of speaking parts pass briskly through the plot, variously helping or hindering the efforts of single-minded C.I.A. operative Maya (Jessica Chastain) to locate Osama bin Laden, and certainly convincing the audience that the fog of covert war has descended over the landscape. Maya, though, is clear-headed and adaptable; she wears a nice suit to her first waterboarding session, but doesn't make that mistake twice. "I learned from my predecessor that it's easier just not to say 'No' to you," says one in a long line of moderately exasperated superiors.

Maya leaves the screen for most of the climatic Seal Team raid on bin Laden's Abbottabad compound, and such is the pull of Ms. Chastain's urgent gaze for the rest of the running time that you feel the loss. But by then the film has its mind on the whirlwind that Maya has sown. Ms. Bigelow turns the raid into a montage of sinister blacked-out helicopters, night-vision imagery, laser sighting and jarring kill shots. The sequence is as brutal as it is abstract and bewitching, and any jingoism drains away into the carpets along with the blood.

The waterboarding occurs only briefly at the opposite end of the film, and gets a dismal track record as a route to reliable intel. Ms. Bigelow and writer Mr. Boal cannily, or perhaps manipulatively, give Maya good reason to be motivated by personal anguish after the half-way point, but even then her increased zeal doesn't automatically produce better results. The eventual lucky break is rescued from behind the metaphorical filing cabinet by basic legwork.

Which is, of course, the point. Ends only messily connect with means, says the film, so you'd better work out what you think about that. It's a straight political notion, wrapped around an action movie much like a note is wrapped around a brick. Only at the very end does a solid Hollywood certainty creep in, when Maya's final relief involves a single tear and a wail from Alexandre Desplat's sinuous soundtrack. A film as striking as this one deserves a less familiar parting shot, but it's a small price to pay for a film dealing this cogently with the larger prices paid elsewhere.


Opened on Jan. 25 in Britain.  

Directed by Kathryn Bigelow; written by Mark Boal; director of photography, Greig Fraser; edited by Dylan Tichenor and William Goldenberg; music by Alexandre Desplat; production design by Jeremy Hindle; costumes by George L. Little; produced by Mr. Boal, Ms. Bigelow and Megan Ellison; released by Universal Pictures. Running time: 2 hours 36 minutes. This film is rated 15.

WITH: Jessica Chastain (Maya), Jason Clarke (Dan), Joel Edgerton (Patrick), Jennifer Ehle (Jessica), Mark Strong (George), Kyle Chandler (Joseph Bradley), Edgar Ramirez (Larry), James Gandolfini (C.I.A. director), Chris Pratt (Justin), Callan Mulvey (Saber), Fares Fares (Hakim), Reda Kateb (Ammar), Harold Perrineau (Jack), Tushaar Mehra (Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti) and Stephen Dillane (National Security Adviser).


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