Zero Dark Thirty (2012), directed by Kathryn Bigelow

I went into Zero Dark Thirty thinking that there was not a hope in hell it could live up to the hype.

I didn’t even understand the hype, but then again I didn’t fall head over heals for The Hurt Locker. Don’t get me wrong, I thought it was great, but not the greatest movie ever made, as some seemed to consider it (I’m long overdue for a revisit, for the record). Nor did I think a film about the hunt for Osama Bin Laden could be something I would find any particular interest in. Ra Ra America turns me off.

But I should have known Bigelow is better than that.

Zero Dark Thirty isn’t Ra Ra America, and it isn’t The Hurt Locker, a film easily as much action as war drama, as well as an explosive (excuse the pun) character study.

What it is is a meticulously crafted, terse, tense procedural that is among the most thrilling two and a half hours you could ever expect in a cinema. It takes material I never thought could possibly be interesting to me, mainly because I’m so sick of hearing about it, and spins a yarn out of it that I couldn’t take my eyes off of.

Basically it pulled a United 93 on me.

A procedural, by its nature, usually says the most by not saying much at all. It shows how something happened, usually sticking to a basic “why” and avoiding passing any moral judgement on the events it depicts. Part of me feels like a procedural is a low form of filmmaking, akin more to an episode of CSI than a cinematic masterpiece. But dammit if the other part of me doesn’t love them.

I think I’m in part right, because they do seem to drift from memory. As much as I remember thoroughly enjoying United 93 I haven’t seen it since and barely remember the particulars of it. I don’t hear it mentioned in many greatest films of the decade lists, despite an immense amount of critical love when it came out.

Zero Dark Thirty might be headed for the same fate, but I hope not, because really, when we’re talking about movies, is there anything better than an immersive, thrillingly good time at the cinema?

And besides, I think it achieves more than that.

I’m avoiding talking about particulars of the film because it’s somehow better to go in knowing very little about it. And there’s not much to say, really. It’s a linear, straight-faced telling of the events that led to the killing of Osama Bin Laden. It categorizes and reveals. It shows, it does not tell.

For the very reason that the movie seems so straight forward, Jessica Chastain’s performance is all the more notable. She is our only emotional context, our humanizing counterpoint for the historical events unfolding before us. We experience them with her, feel her frustration, take part in her obsession, sympathize with her loss of a part of that which makes her human.

Chastain pulls all this off in the spirit of the film. Her performance is never flashy. She has no big speeches or emotional meltdowns. She expresses all that she is going through in the way she carries herself, her expressions, the way she interacts with others. Her character changes considerably during the eight or so years the movie takes place over. Thanks to the performance those changes are subtle, but they are not lost and, in fact, they provide the humanizing context that makes the film work so well.

Okay, there’s been a lot of talk about the torture in the film, so I feel I should say something. I believe there is no issue here and to suggest that the film condones torture is ridiculous. This is a film that shows what happened. It doesn’t judge how it happened. And if it does at all, I think it does so in a way that recognizes the cost (personal, moral, human) of finding Bin Laden.

Just because a film shows something does not mean it condones it. Clearly this treatment of prisoners happened. And it helped lead to the ultimate conclusion. Fact. Should it have happened that way? Is torture an effective means of gaining information? That’s a judgement call that the film does not make. It recognizes the change that happened when Obama came in. It recognizes the shifting values of American foreign policy, of the attitudes immediately after 9/11 versus the attitudes after the dust settles. But it offers no opinion.

To suggest otherwise is ridiculous and shows a lack of understanding of the subtleties and intent of the movie.

This is a stellar bit of filmmaking. Many have said already, but the lack of an Oscar nomination for Kathryn Bigelow is horrendous. As much as I enjoyed Silver Linings Playbook, David O. Russell’s heavy handed Hollywood approach has nothing on what Bigelow has managed to accomplish here. With such a light touch, or perhaps more accurately, an invisible touch, she has managed so much.

This is truly accomplished filmmaking and one hell of a great movie. It would have made my best of 2012 list without question.

Zero Dark Thirty is in cinemas now.