Thursday, December 20, 2012

Review: Zero Dark Thirty


The title means 12:30 AM in military slang, okay?

Anyway, the word of the title that stands out to me post viewing, is Dark. A film about the hunt for Osama Bin Laden could easily be black and white, thrilling tales of heroics, etc. But Zero Dark Thirty opts to go a different route, showing us the horrible things the terrorists do, while still managing to remind us of the dark and morally grey things the government are doing. There are least 2 extended and incredibly brutal interrogation sequences, and they aren’t presented in a heroic Jack Bauer style. They are presented as brutal and dehumanizing, just another tool in the arsenal of the hunters, which includes bribes, intimidation, torture and occasionally murder, as they hunt people who do even worse things.

Aside from all of that morally grey stuff, the movie from 2012 that Zero Dark Thirty reminds me of the most is Argo. It’s a huge, real life story, taking place over several years, but the movie mostly ignores the importance of it’s own subject. It boils the story down to a straightforward procedural, drama, focusing in on a ground level perspective. In the lead up to this movie there was some debate about whether it would be pro-Obama propaganda, but he never once appears in it.

As a straightforward thriller, most of the weight is being carried by the directing and editing, which is extremely solid. Kathryn Bigelow has always been an extremely talented action and thriller director, and all of that is on display here. The sequence that stands out to me is the extended scene at the end, which shows the actual raid on Bin Laden’s safehouse. A lesser film or director might skip over it entirely, or reduce it in scale (especially since the movie had already passed the two hour mark at that point) but Zero Dark Thirty goes in the opposite direction, showcasing the tactics, difficulties and techniques of the SEALs who invaded the building. It’s a bold choice, but it more than pays off.

The weight of the story, the meaning if you will, is in the idea of becoming a monster while seeking them (I believe Nietzsche said something pithy about it), and all of that is embodied by its lead character, Maya played by Jessica Chastain. She’s a character who is obsessed with catching Bin Laden, even more than most people were, and the obsession is slowly consuming her. Chastain is damn near a revelation in the role, bringing subtly to a role that would be hard to play at the best of times, but that she pulls off excellently. There’s also great supporting work, mostly from Mark Strong and Jason Clarke, buoyed by a solid script.

There are nitpicks I can make, but they’re odd issues. Most notable is the semi-weird pacing, that makes it feel that the movie is moving too fast. The movie has a lot of ground to cover, going all the way from 9/11 to the night Bin Laden was killed, and some things feel that they’re getting rushed over. Still, if my biggest complaint about a movie can be boiled down to ‘I don’t think there’s enough of it’ that is a good movie.

Is Zero Dark Thirty accurate to what happened? I tend to doubt it, but it’s not really all that important. This is not the first movie made about the hunt for Bin Laden and I don’t think it will be the last. What you need to know is that it’s an excellent thriller, well made, engaging and really quite tense, even as you know how it has to end. It’s easily one of the best films made on the War on Terror, and a new high watermark for Kathryn Bigelow. I know it’s only playing in Limited Release right now, but the moment it gets to your area, you need to go see it.

Elessar is a 22 year old Alaskan born cinephile and he thinks the guy playing Bin Laden could have skipped the weeks he spent preparing for the role, given how much screen time he gets.

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