Zero Dark Thirty has been fairly labeled procedural in nature. It is practically more story-driven than character-driven with events based on real-life occurences that drive this obsessive CIA analyst named Maya (Jessica Chastain) in her hunt for the terrorist Osama Bin Laden. There are strong characters here and an incredibly in-tune-with-the-material type of a cast. Some actors are only in the movie for a moment, but most are names and faces an avid film/TV fan would recognize. There is certainly deep character development here, but as with most films based on recent events, there is an air of questioning and consideration that has been placed upon the film first before talk about its craft.
What does a filmmaker owe to depicting real-life subjects? I might have mentioned this here before, but I always think of a story David O. Russell told during a THR interview about The Fighter. He mentioned how he was sitting with Charlene (Amy Adams' character from the film) at a hotel after the movie and in walked Alice (Melissa Leo's character from the film) and Charlene just couldn't stand being with her. The pain, conflict, and history that these characters had been facing in O. Russell's narrative was in fact real and shared the same name and backstory as the characters he had been studying and bringing to life with his cast.
That being said, historical fiction obviously isn't a documentary. Does the public realize this? I'm of course mostly basing this on people I hear and talk to in New York, but many seem to really buy into the whole "based on a true story aspect". In fact, whether I'm at work or a family reunion, I hear "if you want a good story, find a true one" from older folks. Listen to how people have spoken about historical inaccuracies with Argo and Lincoln. It's as if the movie is slighted by having taken dramatic license. To raise a counter-point, I was talking to a friend about Holy Terror, a graphic novel by Frank Miller that featured a Batman-esque vigilante fighting al-Qaeda. It was found by many to be quite offensive. So a slightly more fictitous story has no place, but... and one can go in circles about this topic, but I only bring it up because my brain has thought about that in the days after seeing Zero Dark Thirty (as a side note, I only bring up Holy Terror as an example, the book is extremely trashy and is practically a war cry against Arabs).
Then there is the torture debate, which I do have a slightly more personal opinion on. I don't see this film as pro-torture. It features torture, but if anything most information doesn't come out during those sessions. I really should read into the media "controversy" surrounding the film. Is it because at no point a character points at the camera and says "torture is bad folks", that the film is no longer apolitical? That's like saying The Help is racist because it shows inequality.
Instead, to now talk about the film as just that, a film, director Kathryn Bigelow and writer/journalist Mark Boal (both previously worked together on The Hurt Locker) have once again delivered a phenomenally well crafted work. I'm a great fan of Bigelow's style because despite some flourishes one can notice, she is very adept at adapting to different material. The cinema verite-inspired camera work matched with the best sound design and editing I've seen this year help to propel and propel and propel this story ever forward, keeping your interest and like Affleck did with Argo, being sure to keep morals, ethics, and politics lingering on the outskirts but never uspurping the central material. Even the art direction is subtle, at not point did I feel like I was looking at a set.
Jessica Chastain also seems to have really been placed on another level for her career as now a leading performer. I noticed her last year with The Tree of Life, The Debt, Coriolanus, Take Shelter, and The Help and this year with Lawless and now this. She is extremely empathetic and timed in how she speaks and moves as Maya. We understand how her mind processes and the sheer commitment that is brought to the character's work. That ferociousness is beautifully off-set by what is being called by myself (and others) one of the most powerful and haunting final scenes of the film. The last shot of Zero Dark Thirty is nothing short of cathartic. This work feels real, no matter what inaccuracies or politics wish be be assigned to it.