Only a few years after winning Best Director and Best Picture for The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow returned to the world of Middle Eastern terrorism, taking on the subject of the hunt for Bin Laden and again receiving major Oscar love. It’s a suspenseful two and a half hours that pulls no punches and doesn’t set out to deceive its audience with gung-ho patriotic propaganda and cliched sequences.
The film opens with audio of phone calls from inside the Twin Towers on 9/11, letting you know from the opening frame that it will be a confrontational piece of art that’s not for the weak. The early torture scenes confirm this. They aren’t gratuitous, at least in my opinion, but they send one message immediately and effectively: There isn’t always moral high ground to be had, just because you wish there to be some. Boal’s script doesn’t seem to take a side on the should-we-or-shouldn’t-we of the detainee program, but instead just gives the nitty gritty truth of the matter. I thought it was an admirable choice. There IS a human cost to these missions, and it is not shied away from, nor is it embraced. It’s a fine line to walk, as a filmmaker.
The film’s climax is that fatal night at the complex in Abbottabad, Pakistan, is heart-stopping and worthy of much discussion and dissection, as it certainly was upon release. Yes, it’s chaotic and hard to see the action at many points, but not only does that reinforce the old “war is Hell” adage, but also serves to illustrate how the CIA was working in the blind, for the most part, when it came to gathering the intel to make this operation possible. I’ve heard several complaints that the night vision looked too much like a video game, but if film as an artistic medium strives for realism, why not let you walk the same path as the soldiers who carried out arguably the most important stealth mission in military history?
Let’s talk about the performances. Jessica Chastain is an absolute powerhouse, and quite possibly the best working actress in America. Her presence is commanding and she conveys truckloads of emotion. The events follow her investigation over the course of several years, so you’re with her throughout the good times and bad, from her first days as an uncomfortable viewer inside a torture cell to her stating quite plainly that she wishes to drop bombs on these motherfuckers. Chastain’s confidence in her character equals that character’s confidence in her own mindset and actions, and it’s really something to see. By the time the final shot unfolds and you see the look of overwhelming relief on her face as the tears stream down, you can sense the world of weight surrounding her and the operation. She had been shot at and nearly blown up in a suicide bombing, but because she lived on and kept pushing forward, the world lost one of its worst people. The supporting cast, including Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Mark Strong, James Gandolfini and Chris Pratt among others, do more than hold their own and make sure that it’s not just a one-woman show.
This is an excellent film. It checks all the boxes: writing, direction, acting, editing, sound…it’s all here, and in top form.