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Kathryn Bigelow is not a director whose work I am too familiar with. I know the renown of Hurt Locker, but I never saw the film. I watched Strange Days many years ago, and I vaguely remember hating the film. However, Zero Dark Thirty is a great, great movie, and the credit for its brilliance (and simplicity) goes directly to... the director. I have seldom seen a movie that so successful navigates so many difficult themes and not exploit them for cheap emotional and shock effects.
In Hollywood, there is a tendency for overworking every explosion available to heighten the moment's intensity and ride on the expected audience's adolescent glee. Bigelow manages to make every explosive moments what they should be: inescapable and dangerous. Whether the boom is expected or not, it is always devastatingly true-to-life. This is a rare gift, with movies like Transformers making an art of blowing crap up and more "dramatic" films slowing down the moment to squeeze out the drama. Bigelow, instead, never exploits those effects, nor does she abuse the emotions. There are shocking and surprising moments that come and go exactly as you would expect them to come and go in real life.
And like explosions themselves, Bigelow also manages to use the explosive topics, events, or even political fights without any sense of exploiting the themes. There is no Osama bin Laden orange being squeezed for all its juiciness. This, despite the fact that the entire movie is precisely about finding him. The topic of torture is introduced right away, as would be expected, without any extra dramatization, or even political commentary. You'd think that clocking in at two and a half hours, plenty of things would have been exploited.
The temptation must have been there. Certainly, when seen through the eyes of a woman, the enigmatic and obsessive "Maya" (Jessica Chastain), the suffering of the suspects are depicted as painful to live through. But not just for her, but for all the agents involved. She's the one that keeps going, whereas her male counterpart quits (played by Jason Clarke). Certainly the moment the politics of it got explosive as the presidential debate got underway, you'd expect a film maker to start sharing some agenda. And yet Bigelow manages to keep a tight mouth about it all, even at one point showing Obama speaking while keeping her characters focused on the case at hand. In fact, Bigelow seems to suggest a more pragmatic, realist approach for how information can be obtained from enemies: this is depicted best in two scenes: the first, when one of the men on the receiving end appeals to Maya, her line is, basically, "you can make it stop any time by being honest." The second, when the same man is made to believe that his information saved lives and rewarded for it, making him reveal further details. The stick and the carrot, respectively.
Perhaps its flaw is in going on a bit long and teasing the audience a bit too much with what should happen. We all know where this is all going, and, even if we didn't know how this all gets there, we don't want to know every detail that exists, nor to see Maya write down almost every number all the way to the 129 or so it took for our leaders to act on the information.
Ultimately, Zero Dark Thirty is most intriguing not on the torture aspects, not on the violence, not even on its politics, but on the quality of our CIA itself. How lost, how confused, how easily undermined and manipulated, and depending on the tenacity of few agents to get a job done that almost slipped right through. If there is historical accuracy here, the real question is: how many jobs will continue to slip through?