Zero Dark Thirty Review: Give Jessica Chastain the Oscar

Zero Dark Thirty

Note: There are some minor spoilers, but it’s not like there’s some kind of incredible twist ending that I’m about to give away. This film is based on some pretty recent and major history, after all.

Jessica Chastain’s past year-plus has been pretty remarkable, and it has culminated in her unforgettable performance in one of 2012’s best films, Zero Dark Thirty. Chastain had been excellent in key supporting roles in Take Shelter, The Debt, The Help (for which she received a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination), Tree of Life (a polarizing film to be sure, but not because of her performance), and Lawless, but those roles were all leading up to this one. Since director Kathryn Bigelow was inexplicably passed over in the Oscar nominations (more on that later), one can only hope that the Academy can partially rectify that mistake by rightfully awarding the Best Actress Oscar to Chastain (with all due respect to Jennifer Lawrence, who was awesome in Silver Linings Playbook).

In Zero Dark Thirty, Chastain plays a CIA officer named Maya, who relentlessly leads America’s efforts to capture and eliminate Osama bin Laden. Most leads, often based on interrogations of various detainees with links to Al Qaeda, lead to dead ends and, in the worst cases, dead Americans. Maya, however, along with her colleague, Dan (Jason Clarke in an underrated performance), manipulate one detainee into giving information about a man under the alias of Abu Ahmed; this man is believed to be bin Laden’s most trusted courier. Though years go by and the apparent usefulness of this lead seems to wane, Maya keeps at it despite the doubts of most of her CIA colleagues. Of course, knowing recent history, we know that these efforts ultimately pay off.

At 157 minutes, Zero Dark Thirty isn’t exactly a quick film to digest, but its character-driven nature, Chastain’s excellent performance that fulfills this, and Bigelow’s masterful job of facilitating this make the movie fly by. This dynamic director-actress combination is at its best when the film is looked at in its progression from start to finish — in the outset, Bigelow wants to show us a young, somewhat tentative CIA officer getting some welcome-to-the-real-s**t exposure at a CIA black site in Pakistan. As Dan subjects a detainee to water-boarding and other aggressive forms of torture, Maya appears to be mildly nervous and uncomfortable. However, when the detainee pleads for her to help him, she coldly replies that he can help himself by being truthful. Thus, we see a hint here of the more gung-ho character that would ultimately take over the screen by the end of the film. Bigelow shows us these scenes and focuses on Chastain’s character here to establish what she is at that time but also what she has the potential to become. Chastain, meanwhile, executes this perfectly, and her gradual (and thus believable) development over the decade-long time period during which the film takes place speaks to her range as an actress.

We see this type of character coming on throughout the film’s first act and the beginning of its second act, until Maya/Chastain — from both a character standpoint and an actress standpoint — fully peaks in a particular scene. In this scene, Maya’s supervisor, Joseph Bradley (Kyle Chandler), is berating her for being too focused on bin Laden and not enough on enemies and situations he feels are more directly impactful to the homeland. Maya, though, fires right back at him with an incredible onslaught about why eliminating bin Laden has always been and still is of the utmost importance. Bradley, like the movie’s audience, is left speechless. My father has always told me that certain acting scenes in certain films elicit the sentiment of, “just give him/her the award”. This is one of those defining scenes, much like this one with Tom Hanks in Philadelphia and this one with Sean Penn in Mystic River (even though I just lambasted his ludicrous performance in Gangster Squad), where the awarding of the Oscar is (or should be) instantly decided.

Now, as great as Chastain’s performance in this film was, she was given a great launching pad in the form of a meticulously crafted, character-centric story (which still worked fantastically well even in the military/ops sub-genre). As was mentioned before, Zero Dark Thirty shows us the gradual development of a rookie CIA officer into a forceful, veteran leader. While performed beautifully by Chastain, this was made possible through Mark Boal’s screenplay (which thankfully received an Oscar nod) and Kathryn Bigelow’s directing, which, as we know, did not receive an Oscar nod. I was surprised at this snub even before I saw the film — purely based on things I had heard about it — and after seeing the film, I was even more surprised. Bigelow’s direction was instrumental in not only conveying Maya’s character development (Chastain has even said she was hurt that Bigelow was not nominated because she felt much of her performance was a result Bigelow’s guidance), but also in keeping the suspense high in a film where we already know the final outcome.

In any event, let’s be thankful that Jessica Chastain has (thus far) gotten the accolades she deserves, as has Zero Dark Thirty as a whole, as it is up for Best Picture. There has been some criticism over the film’s apparent pro-torture stance, but my advice is to not let that deter you from seeing it if you have not already. After all, this type of torture is what happened and what does happen, and it’s not exactly a secret. There is no reason to sugarcoat the truth in a film like this just to avoid this type of backlash; it would take away from the integrity of the picture. More importantly, though, you should see Zero Dark Thirty simply because it is an exceptional film with a brilliant performance from a rising star.


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My name is Tom Dianora. I'm a 23-year-old yuppie (though not like Patrick Bateman) living in LA. I have a passion for film that I like to tap into through writing.

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  1. I have not seen this but Jessica Chastain’s performance in The Help is enough to convince me that this will be good. She was so funny in a movie that I think is overrated.

    • I completely agree with you Chastain in The Help — great supporting performance, mediocre film overall.

      I hope this article convinced you even further to see Zero Dark Thirty. 🙂

  2. Ryan Kantor

    She did great, and I think the direction was amazing. They say K Bigalow was snubbed because of the perceived stance on torture. I didn’t think there was a stance, just a sharing of reality.

  3. Edwina Mabery

    She won the Golden Globe for the role so no surprise if she will snatch the Oscar too. Great performance in a great role!

  4. I think she won the Oscar that year.

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