“It’s cool that you’re tough. But in the end, everybody breaks, bro. It’s biology.”
This is a telling of one CIA agent’s odyssey to track and arrange for the killing of Osama Bin Laden. Maya (Jessica Chastain) arrives at an undisclosed CIA prison in the Middle East in 2003. Fresh from her plane ride she attends her first interrogation (torture session) of a captured terrorist. Her mentor, Dan (a phenomenal turn by Jason Clarke), shows her the ropes but there’s a time crunch: if the terrorist doesn’t spill the names of his cohorts, the CIA will be unable to prevent another terror attack. Dan and Maya fail to get the information in time. And when she sees the results of her failure, Maya begins to dig in her heels and we are off to the races in one of the best films of 2012. And probably 2013.
Kathryn Bigelow already made a damn near perfect thriller in a similar setting (‘The Hurt Locker’). She is, unquestionably, one of the most affective and skilled filmmakers working. There’s no discussion to be had and there’s no handicap one can argue to give her. She’s a member of the best of the best in an industry that continues to offer fewer opportunities to women. She’s a breakthrough long overdue, not an exception. She returns with a story that’s neither character study nor does it feel plot driven. To try and follow the plot is to keep chasing names most of our ears in North America are not trained to understand at the speed they’re spoken. And that is part of the brilliance, we’re chasing after details as our protagonist is getting glimpses and hints and impressions of bread crumbs to follow. What you are watching is a visceral hunt, not a conventional thriller, made all the more impactful with the way it integrates real footage from various terrorists attacks spanning 9/11 to 5/1.
One of the most brilliant aspects of this film (and there are many) is its pacing. Just when you think you’ve gotten momentum, that you think the movie’s going to give you a moment to bask in new information or let you catch your breath after a terrifying (and masterly crafted) action scene, you find yourself falling behind in the story, again. Yet you know you’re closer to the end. It captures Maya’s increasing frustration by inciting your own until you want need the final result as badly as she does.
From most all angles this film is a bit awe-inspiring. The cinematography, production design and majority of the casting is spot on. You’re in this world full of probability, human error and trained cruelty. You’re immersed in a chase that you may not enjoy but that you will be consumed by. It’s a master class in film-making and storytelling. It also, at the very least, cracks the mold of your expectations for storytelling according to what mainstream tastes have evolved to (IMHO).
A rare quality that this film possesses is that it doesn’t revolve around an actor’s performance. It doesn’t give its protagonist the obligatory monologue about her motivations. Hell, it doesn’t really have a monologue in the damn thing. It DOES have a protagonist, but this movie is geared toward a more singular focus: the hunt.
What IS fascinating about Maya’s arc is that an argument can be made that we’re essentially following the evolution of a fanatic. When we meet her she’s entering the next phase of her resolution to “doing the right thing.” Yet it takes her approximately eight more years to accomplish it. And with each delay, denial and death, she becomes increasingly desperate. Her resolve transforms into obsession. Maya goes from novice when you meet her to a shadow of a human being by the final credits. In this case she’s given up effectively her life as sacrifice for those she’s lost, for those her country has lost, and for the belief that she’s doing the righteous thing. Chastain absolutely delivers the goods. She’s credible, intelligent, and becomes insatiable. At the same time, we’re presented with a performance that doesn’t chew scenery or attempt to be bigger than the story its in. Instead, it gives the audience the space to project our own experiences and our own emotional baggage onto her reactions. You’ll notice there are a lot of silent shots focused on her face. They’re not there to showcase a screen beauty. They’re to allow you to infer what’s going on inside of her with what YOU feel would be going on inside of her. That’s perhaps the neatest trick, and treat, this movie pulls.
Before the film was even released there was controversy over a potential political bias. I can report to you, after having seen it multiple times, that it doesn’t contain an ounce of opinion.
A movie absent of political commentary and yet about a government sanctioned manhunt. It’s not promoting a liberal agenda and there’s no conservative propaganda. This film even refuses to acknowledge racism towards the Middle East in the aftermath of 9/11. It doesn’t have time for that kind of time wasting. That’s not what this movie is about nor is it what I, a member of the movie going public, think it is trying to accomplish. What this movie does is hold a mirror up to us and say firmly, “This is what we did and still do, to one extent or another.” We tortured people. We detained illegally. Post 9/11 we became more fearful, and from that fear came ferocity at the expense of the moral high ground. This movie doesn’t ask you to judge. It asks you to look. And whatever emotion is evoked is from what you bring to it.
People respond to fiction differently than they do to documentary. I love this movie. However, part of me finds it (perhaps naively) difficult to accept the fact that this movie will be giving the kind of closure to mainstream America we still want for the tragedies of 9/11. Not a documentary. Not interviews of firsthand accounts. Nothing that technical, self-aware, or, one can argue, disconnected from the events as they occurred in real time. What this movie does is provide the visceral emotional release that we crave. You are hunting with them. You are hurting with them. You are hoping with them. And you are willing to go to inhumane lengths with them. Even as you sit in a movie theater, you know that actions like these are being done to preserve “this” and by “this” I mean the way of life that we live as part of the Westernized world. It’s asking you, maybe, to be humble about the efforts of those halfway around the globe. It perhaps asks you to be grateful that a SEAL team isn’t crashing a helicopter into your front yard…or your neighbor’s. It offers perspective.
The world’s better off without Osama Bin Laden. Period. This is a masterpiece of storytelling. Period. What it gave me, that I didn’t expect, was this food for thought: our culture has reached the point where we prefer fiction to tell us the truth. Of course that’s nothing new (read the “Midnight Ride of Paul Revere”). Yet somehow I’ve not let that realization sink in until I felt the power of this film.