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Film Review: Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

Zero Dark Thirty (2012) is a monumental film, if not for its brilliant craftsmanship at least for its historic subject matter.  Fortunately, it is a riveting blend of history and drama.  The last time director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal teamed up for a film regarding the War on Terror, they made the white-knuckle thriller The Hurt Locker (2010), which went on to win six Oscars that included Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay.  This was poised to make a similar push at this year’s Oscars before many viewers sparked a controversy surrounding torture, though the film actually portrays it in a balanced manner.  Despite the questions of accuracy (as with any movie based on history) and its controversy, Zero Dark Thirty is a first-class thriller, a captivating and concentrated character study, and a fascinating account of history – its selection as one of 2012’s best pictures is certainly deserved.


The film opens with several haunting sound recordings of desperate calls for help or to relatives from victims on September 11.  After that, the film finds its lead in CIA Agent Maya, who has begun her field work in the Middle East at an undisclosed Black Site where she observes the torturous interrogation of Ammar, one of Al Qaeda’s members.  In short, the plot follows Maya as she determinedly hunts down Osama bin Laden over the course of ten years; it is a tight chronicle of events that transpire during the decade leading up to and including the infamous raid in Pakistan.

Even though we all know how the story ends, few know much about the decade-long manhunt itself – thus, Zero Dark Thirty is a thoroughly engrossing piece of cinema and history.  Viewers will likely question the veracity of some facts, but this is not a documentary; it is a dramatization based on actual events (sorry conspiracy theorists).  Bigelow and Boal even consulted the Administration and other sources while constructing the project, which was actually in development prior to the raid and death of bin Laden (in that story, the end showed how he was still at large).  Therefore, this is likely going to be the most accurate non-documentary portrayal of the manhunt.  Bigelow and cinematographer Greig Fraser employ a docu-drama camera style (handheld shots) throughout much of the film, but it never feels overdone and nauseating; rather, it somewhat helps to bring the audience into the reality.


Also, Bigelow and Boal wisely chose to steer clear of politics in the film, and that includes the torture issue, which is actually quite balanced here.  Like The Hurt Locker, this film does not get into the motivations or morality of the war. Instead, it focuses on one woman’s determined pursuit of bin Laden, at all costs including utilizing torture.  Bush is only briefly seen on a television in the background, and Obama is also seen on a television during an interview regarding torture, but neither are in the film to build or belittle one administration over the other.  This is a story about the countless agents, mainly Maya, who tirelessly worked to accomplish a mission and the costs of achieving it.

Many viewers, including some U.S. Senators, criticized the film for its alleged sanctioning of torture, as there is the implication that one “enhanced interrogation” of a detainee may have gleaned important information and given the fact that they did find bin Laden in the end.  However, we never see a buy viagra online detainee give up truthful or any substantial information while being tortured; if any leads come about it is from a more traditional interrogation or through painstaking research.  Furthermore, since the film focuses on Maya, her character arc gives insight into how the film tackles torture – these scenes show how she develops a thick skin to almost becoming soulless all in an effort to catch and kill bin Laden.  So, really the film presents a slightly anti-torture view in portraying such scenes in a no-hands barred kind of way and how it negatively affects those carrying out the torture.  Besides, to leave out the fact that they tortured detainees (at least early on in the war on terror) would be disingenuous to reality.  Bigelow put it perfectly: “depiction is not endorsement” – in short, viewers need not worry that the film glorifies or defends torture; if anything, they will still feel it is a dirty, inhumane tactic if not more so after watching the movie, despite a “victory” that really feels more disheartening than cathartic (indeed, where does one go after all that?).


Like the rest of Bigelow’s work, and especially her last effort, Zero Dark Thirty is a prime example of pure craftsmanship.  It is a cold, calculated film deliberately constructed with a great deal of momentum; even though much of the movie takes place in offices, viewers will be on the edge of their seats through most of it.  Moreover, several moments will genuinely shock viewers in how abrupt or violent an attack is; the film immediately grips viewers and never lets go until the end.  Alexandre Desplat’s riveting score, which is actually used in a minimalistic, background/underscore manner instead of overwhelming the audience and taking center stage, also keeps the viewer engaged and tense.

The raid sequence itself is worth the price of admission alone.  It is masterfully directed to fully immerse viewers into the seals’ mission, as it virtually plays out in real-time and without any distracting stylish or cinematic add-ons, like music – it blends third-person perspectives with night-vision point of views.  We may all know about the raid and how it went down, but witnessing it on the big-screen is entirely different and endlessly exciting.  Perhaps my only issue with this part is that it is almost too dimly lit and may have some viewers straining to comprehend parts, but this is a minor issue with a nearly perfect portrayal of the raid.  Also, do not expect to get a full glimpse of bin Laden’s kill-shot, as it is quick and somewhat off-screen or obstructed, but no less intense or powerful.


The film has a slew of great performances, ranging from cameo-short to traditional supporting roles.  However, it is Jessica Chastain’s resolute, sometimes breathtaking performance as the unwavering Maya that has garnered everyone’s attention, justifiably so.  Like her character, she puts her heart, mind and soul into the role that is quite forceful; one of her standout scenes includes a heated argument with her station chief boss Joseph Bradley, played by a solid Kyle Chandler.  She is deservedly one of the front-runners for Best Actress, (alongside Jennifer Lawrence).  Jason Clarke turns in another great, gritty performance as CIA enforcer agent Dan.  Jennifer Ehle has a significant part to play as Jessica, a fellow CIA agent and the closest thing to a friend for Maya (even though they disagree on several occasions).  Reda Kateb gives a moving turn as detainee Ammar, as he goes through the wringer of interrogations in the first half.  Mark Strong, James Gandolfini, Harold Perrineau, Edgar Ramirez, and even Mark Duplass all make small appearances as other agents or officials (Gandolfini being Leon Panetta but only referred to as CIA Director in the credits).  Joel Edgerton and Chris Pratt are the most recognizable faces and they somewhat lead the Seal Team Six outfit, with other notables Frank Grillo and Taylor Kinney to a lesser extent.  Everyone does an excellent job with whatever their roles task them to do, which helps to create or enhance the film’s authentic and tense atmosphere. 


Is Zero Dark Thirty really the Best Picture of 2012?  Perhaps not, but it is definitely amongst the best.  For such an important film, the dynamic duo of Bigelow/Boal is probably the ideal choice to craft this thriller, and they succeed on almost every level.  Imagining how the cast and crew accomplished the making of the film itself is extraordinary, given the film’s subject matter and filming in the Middle East (this should have been a surefire director nomination for Bigelow at the Oscars).  Although the movie is not as moving as other nominees this year, but it is not meant to be an emotional, inspiring or cathartic experience – viewers will feel frustrated on more than one occasion, especially halfway through, but that is the point as the decade-long manhunt included many dead-ends.  Of course, almost all the names have been changed for security sake and some people or events could have been condensed to make this a 2.5-hour movie (which briskly completes).  In the end, Zero Dark Thirty is not an epic or flashy shoot-em-up action piece; still, it is an artistic yet exhilarating, detailed cinematic experience that entertains as much as it informs.


Zero Dark Thirty – 9/10







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