Monday, January 28, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty

Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty
***1/2 out of ****

In Zero Dark Thirty, director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal reteam to make another war-on-terror themed movie. This worked for them with their excellent 2008 film, The Hurt Locker, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture. Their collaboration seems to be working again with great reviews and a Best Picture nomination.

The film is about the incredibly long-lasting CIA operation to find Osama Bin Laden. It starts off with a dark screen set to real audio of World Trade Center emergency phone calls on 9/11. Then it cuts to a scene featuring the inhumane treatment of a terrorist suspect, which jarringly tests a viewer’s dilemma between vengeance and empathy.

We are then introduced to a strong female lead named Maya, played by Jessica Chastain who has been nominated for Best Actress for this role as a CIA operative. She approves of these tactics to gather intelligence, if it will help find leads to the whereabouts of Bin Laden.

Chastain plays Maya as an obsessed and intelligent character who is very good at focusing on her objective in spite of the emotional tension attached to her occupation. This character is the product of conjecture, as we can’t really know the identities of those who worked this operation or their personal stories. What she does very well here, as an actress, is walk the line between being an audience surrogate of curiosity and boiling emotion while appearing realistically commanding in a job for which most of us will never know the stress. It is fair to say that Chastain is now well established as an ideal leading lady for big movies to come.

For the most part, this film is a procedural investigation story with occasional moments of violent intensity. Bigelow has always been talented at portraying danger and generating dread. She directed one of my favorite dystopian science fiction movies ever, the very underrated Strange Days, which was one of the first hard R-rated movies I managed to see in the theater as a kid. It had me on the edge of my seat from beginning to end. I’m really glad that she has been successful in taking this kind of mood to more serious projects.

While this film is primarily a suspense drama, I think the most amazing thing Bigelow gets away with, is during the final twenty minutes when she shifts gears taking it into full-on action. This is where the team of Navy SEALs raid the dark and gigantic compound, where Bin Laden is hiding, in a minute by minute relentless sequence. Alexandre Desplat’s score takes charge of the movie at this point. The haunting mood the music creates feels like we’ve ventured into another film but it works.

We know how this movie will end but it is very good at keeping us in a state of suspense with Maya, the SEALs and the officials involved in this operation, which according to the movie, may have not been backed up with enough intelligence for everyone to be certain of its success. There is so much damage done during the final event, I kept thinking to myself, “Bin Laden had better be there.” –despite my knowledge of recent history.  

In the end, this film is more thought provoking than meaningful. It depicts torture, expensive bargaining and shady operations that America’s high intelligence probably implemented to finding the world’s most wanted man. The movie doesn’t directly ask the question: does the end justify the means? Like The Hurt Locker it is an objective presentation of people working in a world of constant danger and leaves it to audience interpretation to deal with the moral questions.

This is a very good movie, worthy of the Best Picture nomination, but I have a hunch it won’t win. Films of escapism are more likely to be awarded. They are a comfortable thing to turn to, when we as a people, like Maya in this movie, aren’t sure how to move on.

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