Director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal are the brains behind 2008's The Hurt Locker, an incredibly suspenseful microcosmic look at the War on Terror that won the two filmmakers – and the film itself – Oscars. Their follow-up, Zero Dark Thirty, an exhaustive, journalistic drama about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, shows this same war in macrocosm. From its opening scene, in which horrific 911 calls on September 11, 2001 are played out over a black screen, to the inevitable raid on bin Laden's compound, Zero Dark Thirty briskly takes us through the entire scope of the hunt, from the pristine halls of the White House to the crowded, grubby streets of Pakistan.
At the center of the story is Jessica Chastain, playing a (slightly?) fictionalized CIA operative known only as Maya, who leads the hunt over the course of several years. And here is the only problem I have with what is otherwise an excellently made film: Chastain is miscast. With her willowy features and high, thin voice, the otherwise capable actress simply lacks the tenaciousness and authority that this character needs to exude.
It's a major problem, since the story's all about this person, but it doesn't ruin an exciting and thought-provoking movie whose title – referencing the time of the raid on bin Laden's compound (12:30am) – suggests the morally dark places the American government had to go to in order to get to public enemy #1. The question of whether bin Laden's death will really change anything, or is even something to be particularly proud of, is etched on Chastain's face in the final shot.
But there is one lingering mystery about this film: It was well into development, and in fact headed into production, before bin Laden was killed. As the film's entire last act is dominated by the Navy SEAL raid on the compound, I wonder how Bigelow and Boal planned their story to end before history handed them this spectacular freebie?