I’m a huge Law & Order fan. It’s quite sad, really. If TNT is running one of those Law & Order marathons they often run on holidays and whatnot, I’m sucked into it for the rest of the day. I think a lot of this is because Law & Order (and all of its TV spawn) is all about plot and absolutely never about character development. The ingenious thing that series creator Dick Wolf did was litter the proceedings with scores of great New York stage actors. If you think about it, the regular cast members on procedurals like Law & Order really don’t have much emotional stuff to play. They exist as exposition ATMs, moving the story from plot point to plot point. The guest stars almost always do the heavy emotional lifting. That the Law & Order shows have been cast well allows the regular characters to have an inner life because the actors bring that, the scripts never do.
In many ways, Kathryn Bigelow’s new film Zero Dark Thirty is the ultimate episode of Law & Order. It’s the mother of all procedurals. It’s almost all plot for two and a half hours with almost zero character development. And, it’s also pretty spectacular.
At this point I’ll assume most people know the film is about the hunt for Osama bin Ladin. The film’s marketing campaign makes that widely known, and this week members of both the Senate and the CIA have been squawking about how the film isn’t really an accurate depiction of how the bin Ladin manhunt went down, specifically the use of enhanced interrogation techniques. This is an interesting change of pace, as Republicans were accusing the Obama administration of leaking classified intelligence to Bigelow and her screenwriter Mark Boal in an attempt to make a sympathetic film that might help swing the election in Obama’s favor. That the film won’t open nationally until over two months after the election has been over is beside the point, I suppose.
Since we all know what the picture is about, we also know, thanks to recent history, how the film will end. We know bin Ladin will wind up sleeping with the fishes (quite literally, in fact), and we know that there were no casualties among the elite Special Forces guys tasked with the mission. That Bigelow is able to still ratchet up some incredible suspense is a testament to her talent. We know what’s going to happen and yet the raid on bin Laden’s compound that closes the film is a nail-biter anyway.
The Special Forces guys don’t show up until about the two-hour mark. That’s because the CIA operative who actually locates bin Ladin was a woman. She’s played by Jessica Chastain. Named “Maya” in the film, Chastain is playing a woman with a laser-like focus on finding bin Laden. We know very little about Maya other than that she’s obsessed with finding him. We find out that she is single and that she was recruited by the CIA when she was in high school. That’s about it. It’s up to Chastain to fill in Maya’s inner life and the actress is really great here.
Maya becomes convinced that an Al Queda messenger is the key to finding bin Ladin’s whereabouts. If she can find the courior she can find her fugitive, and over seven arduous years she finally zeroes in on that Pakistani fortress.
To be sure, the entire supporting cast is pretty stellar, too. Again, most of these characters aren’t much more than figures onscreen offering up bits of information. Often, these characters aren’t even named. In fact, we never learn Maya’s last name. A virtual who’s who of great character actors are on hand to give shading and depth to the proceedings. Kyle Chandler and Mark Strong are on hand as upper level CIA bosses. James Gandolfini plays Leon Paneta. And, when SEAL Team Six arrives in the third act, they’re played by guys like Joel Edgerton and Chris Pratt. I must add that as a big fan of Parks and Recreation, that it’s endlessly delightful that Andy Dwyer is a Navy SEAL.
Credit must go to writer Mark Boal for crafting a screenplay that somehow works as a narrative film. Not unlike David Fincher’s Zodiac from a few years ago, Zero Dark Thirty contains a truly enormous amount of essential information the audience is going to need. That that information makes sense and the film rolls from point to point is remarkable in and of itself. This is a long, sprawling film and it’s a triumph of both journalism and storytelling. It’s also lean and fleet, only slightly shorter than The Hobbit by about 15 minutes but not in any way as bloated and sluggish as Jackson’s return slog through Middle Earth.
In many ways, Zero Dark Thirty is a mirror image film to Bigelow’s last movie, the Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker. Both films deal with fallout from 9/11. But, while The Hurt Locker was a very small film that dealt specifically with the human toll the wars were causing to our men and women in uniform, Zero Dark Thirty is a huge film dealing with much broader issues. The Hurt Locker was all about people while Zero Dark Thirty is all about process.
It’s also one of the best films this year.