Zero Dark Thirty – Film Review

Zero Dark Thirty Poster2012 will be remembered as the year the movies took back their time slot. The year the industry remembered they have a super power; making big, ambitious, thought-provoking pictures and damn the running time or who might be protesting. Six major feature films released in the fall/winter season topped the two hour twenty minute mark. That’s right, cinema is for adults again, serious filmgoers, and it’s about time.

Kathryn Bigelow gave us The Hurt Locker, now she revisits the post 9/11 world on the ground again. Her mission, to tell an even more complex and messy story. The decade long manhunt to find and kill Osama bin Laden. The film has come under significant criticism from many about the graphic nature of the scenes depicting prisoner interrogations. The complaints state that the intelligence the CIA uncovered to kill UBL was not linked to information gathered during these types of sessions. We will never know for sure.

This is another fascinating aspect of this past year’s film season that really excites me. Filmmakers with a purpose. Willing to take a risk because it matters. All of a sudden if feels like movies are re-determined to push the envelope. Argo used declassified documents and first hand accounts to weave a dramatic account of the Iran prisoner episode. Lincoln was unabashed about telling the story of slavery and the Civil War and most importantly what really goes on inside the capitol dome with all those politicians. Oliver Stone was the pioneer in this arena and others have come forward to update it and shape it for today.

Bigelow partners once again with her writer colleague Mark Boal (The Hurt Locker) who has given us an on the “edge of your seat” script. He has a variety of factions to write for and a daunting task to pull the thousands of details together in a way that is interesting, dramatic and clear. He succeeds.

Maya 5

Jessica Chastain plays Maya an obsessed and driven (aren’t they all) CIA operative recruited into the intelligence machine directly out of high school. At first Ms.Chastain seems an unlikely choice for this role with her glowing reddish hair, porcelain skin and slight build. But this is Ms. Bigelow’s world and it’s chocked full of powerful women. Maya’s first in country experience places her in an interrogation session run by Dan (Jason Clarke). It gets ugly fast and Maya is clearly uncomfortable. She cringes at some of Dan’s tactics, but very quickly reloads her nerve endings for a second go. This is an important moment for her. She now knows what it will take.

At first it was an assignment to track down UBL. But after a suicide bomber kills several of her fellow operatives at a military camp, a clear set-up, her purpose is transformed into a  personal vendetta. Like anyone who is singularly focused, everything becomes heightened. Yes, I thought about Carrie Mathison from Homeland, but without the bi-polar issue. Maya wears t-shirts when everyone else in the CIA station comes to work in business attire. She never backs down and it’s her insistence that gets her what she needs to discover the compound in Abbottabad. Maya is 100% convinced UBL is living there. There is no question in her mind.

We know what’s coming in the end but Bigelow and Boal unpack the story so skillfully that we are in no hurry to get there.The picture spans more than a decade of events so the filmmakers make liberal use of onscreen way markers, displaying dates and places so we can more easily follow the narrative. We are kept unhinged, helpless, as we watch one explosion after another. Some we know are coming, like the London bombings. Others are more of a surprise, the Marriott Hotel in Pakistan bombing, because they are in the deeper recesses of our memory. As a result we become hyper-sensitized, expecting a bomb to go off at any moment, bringing us closer to what things were really like for these operatives.

Maya reminded me of an updated Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) from the first two Terminator films. Involved at a young age. Didn’t really ask for the assignment, but was more than up to the task. Maya is Sarah in so many ways but without the muscles or military training. In Terminator 2: Judgement Day Connor is sitting in a room of doctors who are trying to pin a diagnosis on her when she explains what’s about to happen. “Anybody not wearing two million sunblock is gonna have a really bad day, get it?” Maya’s parallel is her daily storming to the office window of her boss and scribbling the number of days that nothing has happened since they found the compound.

Maya and Sarah

Maya and Sarah Connor

Ms. Bigelow employs actors we don’t easily recognize. It’s a crafty move to keep the audience focused on the scent of information the players so desperately need to keep alive in order to capture their target. If these parts were played by movie stars it would be distracting and less effective. There is one actor that stands out, James Gandolfini plays the CIA Director.

At the two hour mark we arrive at the mission scene. Cinematographer Greig Fraser gives us breathtaking shots of the choppers weaving through narrow canyons toward the compound and the target. The sequences are skillfully executed and align with the military precision used by the Navy Seals to execute the operation. Most of these scenes are filmed through night goggles, tuning everything an unpleasant green. The film crew shot the mission sequences twice to be sure the got every angle necessary for the editors. The Navy Seals got one chance, the filmmakers had the luxury of being able to go to take two.

Alexandre Desplat’s score performed by the London Symphony Orchestra is moody and at times electronic. The sound design for the film is spectacular and the dialogue is so important the filmmakers use the music sparingly. When it does take the spotlight it is eerie how well it meshes with the visuals. We sometimes hear a middle-eastern influence, but mostly it’s written to increase the suspense. It does. Mr. Desplat also wrote the score for Argo, which means he’s responsible for the music in 20% of the Oscar nominated pictures of 2012. Impressive. He has a deep respect for what’s on screen and does not overpower, simply support. He works in the background, almost inconspicuously, to prop up the narrative and make a point.

Highly recommended. The official film web site is yet another attempt to be interactive. I found it lacking in additional, interesting information. Nominated for 5 Academy Awards. Jessica Chastain won the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a drama.

Photo credits: Columbia Pictures

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. The Season of the Film | Expedient MEANS - February 21, 2013

    […] Zero Dark Thirty – Kathryn Bigelow of “The Hurt Locker” fame turns her lens to the killing of Osama Bin Laden. Full review. […]

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