[Review] – Zero Dark Thirty

6 Jan

Zero Dark Thirty

Title: Zero Dark Thirty
Year: 2012
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Writer: Mark Boal
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Joel Edgerton, Mark Strong, Chris Pratt, Kyle Chandler, Mark Duplass, Frank Grillo, Edgar Ramirez, Harold Perrineau, Jennifer Ehle, James Gandolfini
MPAA Rating: R, strong violence including brutal disturbing images, and for language
Runtime: 157 min
IMDb Rating: 7.4
Rotten Tomatoes: 94%
Metacritic: 95

Finally I get to watch Zero Dark Thirty. Let me tell you something out front, I don’t intend to get into any of the hot topics that have been surrounding this movie, at least not spend the whole review talking about. I won’t talk about whether it’s pro-Obama, or whether it’s pro-torture, or whether it got improper access to classified information. On the one hand I don’t think I’m really classified to talk about those things with any kind of credibility (though, obviously, that hasn’t stopped most people with an internet connection to do so) and on the other hand I’m here to talk about the merits of Kathryn Bigelow‘s latest as a film. And as a film this is an undeniable masterpiece.

I mean, sure, it’s impossible to talk about Zero Dark Thirty without real life circumstances and events getting in the way, if only because the film is about one of the most important events in recent memory, the manhunt for, and eventual demise of, Osama bin Laden. But all this talk about the torture stuff and the trials about it having unwarranted access to classified information only to paint the Obama administration in a good light I think is a bit unnecessary. What we should all be focussing on is simply on what a stunning achievement of filmmaking this is, how gripping and tense this film is, how absolutely smart in its portrayal of such a momentous event it is, how great its eye for detail is.

The film comes, of course, from director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal, the team who, just a few years ago, picked up Oscars for their work in another gripping piece of drama dealing with war, The Hurt Locker. That film is, of course, an absolute tour de force and ranks amongst the very best we’ve seen in the past decade or so, and thank God it took the Oscar out of the hands of Avatar, but I do believe this one’s the better movie. It’s a milestone movie for Ms. Bigelow and for the post-9/11 society, it’s crafted with an utmost level of professionalism that’s impossible not to respect it like hell; it’s super easy to ignore how hard it is to tell a two and a half hour story with an ending we already know, and to do it with such a level intellectual stimulation would normally seem impossible.

What I love so much about the story of how this got made was the fact that Ms. Bigelow and Mr. Boal had already written and were prepping a film about the Battle of Tora Bora, where bin Laden was supposedly hiding and eventually got away. And just as they were about to begin filming the news that bin Laden had been killed broke and they went back to drawing board, with Mr. Boal keeping simply the research and contacts he had made for that initial movie and then starting from scratch to make this new film about a very recent development.

So we get this decade-long tale, this elite team of both intelligence and military operatives all of them working in unison, under top secret status, all over the world, in order to find and eliminate the man who orchestrated the most horrible event in the history of the United States. All of this seen mostly through the eyes of Maya, a young CIA officer who spends her career trying to find bin Laden, a strong, single-minded woman who experiences a hell of a lot in order to achieve her mission. She’s played by Jessica Chastain here, and if you thought Ms. Chastain’s star couldn’t shine any brighter after her insanely successful 2011, wait until you see her here, her performance is absolute dynamite.

I could spend ages talking about the merits of this film, it really just absolutely floored me and chilled me to the bone. I mean, take Argo for instance, an unbelievable film that I loved and that I also gave a perfect grade to. That film’s amazing, and was also about real life events much like this one, but Ben Affleck would have never dared taken with Argo the road Ms. Bigelow took with Zero Dark Thirty. Argo is an easy-going film in which you know how to feel when you leave, in Zero Dark Thirty nothing is digested easily, every single thing, as seen by the many issues it has brought up, can be potentially controversial. It’s a film that’s raw, disturbing, and 100% necessary.

I say disturbing because that’s what this movie is. As the film begins we see darkness and then we hear telephone conversations from those trapped in the towers 11 years ago. You feel that. Then we’re in Pakistan, as Maya’s working at the U.S. Embassy over there, learning the tricks of the trade from a CIA operative played by Jason Clarke. Those tricks of the trade, though they’re called enhanced interrogation techniques, are torture. She’s there to do her job, she’s obsessed with it, she may have to do some amoral things to get the job done, but such are the things are done when working under such extreme conditions and circumstances.

Seeing Ms. Chastain at work here is amazing, and if she takes the Oscar next month then it would be a deserved accolade. She’s so versatile and can do so much with so little. Much like with Jeremy Renner‘s character in The Hurt Locker, Maya is a character who we get to know entirely through the stuff she does in the movie, we don’t get any kind exposition to her past, we must get to know this conflicted character simply through her actions. I love that this character exists in an American movie nowadays, and I love that she got to be played by such an immensely talented actress.

The rest of the cast, by the way is chockfull of amazing actors in supporting roles. You have Kyle Chandler as the CIA big dog in Islamabad, Joel Edgerton and Chris Pratt are part of the Navy SEALs who take part in the climax, Jennifer Ehle is a CIA operative, Edgar Ramirez as a colleague of Maya’s, James Gandolfini as Leon Panetta. With actors like these it’s no surprise that even the smallest character will have its grip on you.

Zero Dark Thirty is a masterful procedural in which the people doing the hunting are mostly in boardrooms or staring at computers and not necessarily in the field (another daring decision of Ms. Bigelow’s in not going the Argo route). It’s a film about revenge and about morality and about America during its darkest hour and how it chose to climb out of it. It’s a vital film, the most important one on this topic we’ve ever had, with a lead character that has no backstory and that’s a different kind of heroine than we’re accustomed to.

I said I wouldn’t talk about it. But screw it, here are my two cents. I don’t think Ms. Bigelow and Mr. Boal glorify or even justify torture. It’s a morally ambiguous film, absolutely, but because of that it’s never clear what it says about something like torture. It gives it you straight, no holds barred, which is why some scenes will be so uncomfortable to witness, but it says so little about it that what you think it does say will probably be what you say about it yourself and not because of the movie.

There’s not one interpretation of facts in this fictionalized account of events, no explicit commentary on neither events nor the real direction of any kind of moral compass. As a society with so many quick outlets with which to let your voice out, be it Twitter or Facebook or whatever, people are fast to pass judgement on a work of art, call it this or that. And it’s precisely because Zero Dark Thirty is neither this or that is that it’s a masterpiece. It’s objective, which is what most fuels debate and controversy, if it shows something it’s because something happened. Every single nation in an event like this, in the history of mankind, has used torture, it’s just that some were better at hiding it or externalizing guilt than others.

You will react to the many, many issues this film poses (and torture is not even the biggest one of them) in a different way than I will or than the person sitting next to you will. That’s because we go to a movie, whether it’s Zero Dark Thirty or The Lorax, with opinions and baggage of our own, and we have those opinions and baggage as we watch it, and we’ll have them as we walk out of it.

Zero Dark Thirty is an impeccably crafted film, with a stunning central performance, a brilliantly researched script, and it’s a film that isn’t afraid to hold a mirror to the face of a nation. I’m of the opinion that it doesn’t tell you just what you see in the reflection of that mirror, though it doesn’t hide the fact that it’s an undeniably dark sight, but rather that you’ll figure just what your see in the mirror for yourself, and you’ll probably do so through opinions you had before this film was ever made.

Grade: A+


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