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Friday, January 11, 2013

Review: Zero Dark Thirty

Before it even began filming Kathryn Bigelow's latest film Zero Dark Thirty was a magnet for controversy. Originally intended to focus on 2001 Battle of Tora Bora, where Osama Bin Laden was thought to have been hiding at that time, Bigelow and her screenwriting partner Mark Boal quickly switched gears after they had heard of Bin Laden's killing in mid-2011. Since its limited (now-wider) release, the film has been a lightning rod for both sides of the political aisle. Does the film advocate torture? Does it show that torture is a worthless tactic? How much of the film is a fabrication? What sort of facts did Boal and Bigelow have access to? Even the US Senate Intelligence Committee is getting involved, investigating the presumed contacts between Boal and the CIA. In truth, the film runs more personal than political, and plays like a Moby Dick-esque tale of single minded obsession.

While the cast is quite large, and many actors come and go throughout, Zero Dark Thirty centers on Maya (Jessica Chastain), a CIA operative who after 9/11 beomes a central figure in the operation to discover major Al Qaeda operatives, including Bin Laden himself. She begins her journey under the wing of CIA Interrogator Dan (Jason Clarke) and the employ of Joseph Bradley (Kyle Chandler). After Dan finally has had enough and returns to the US, Maya takes over his position and learns of a hidden courier that may have direct access to Bin Laden himself. After a few covert investigations, years of questioning, and the loss of a fellow operative in the Camp Chapman suicide bombing, Maya and her team discover the whereabouts of Bin Laden, and the remaining final quarter of the film covers Seal Team Six led by Team Member Patric (Joel Edgerton) and their attempt to take out their biggest target.

Versimilitude is an important aspect of any film dealing with a somewhat touchy subject, and this is the one of many areas where Bigelow and Boal absolutely nail it. Maya isn't a character that we know much about in terms of background, we don't know what her family is like, we don't know if she has any friends outside of the work environment, we have no idea what her sexual preferences are even beyond a line or two between her and a fellow operative. Much like in Maya's professional life, the only thing of importance for the audience in regard to this story is the mission and its accomplishment. Zero Dark Thirty takes place over the course of 10 years, and during the majority of that time Maya is spent investigating to the point of obsession a possible lead to Abu Ahmed, the aforementioned courier. Even long after the CIA has given up on this lead and thought him for dead, Maya continues to pour over the possible evidence and works to find Ahmed through her own self-advocacy up until the point that they discover that he is indeed still alive. Maya is Captain Ahab to Abu Ahmed and Osama Bin Laden's White Whale. The compelling picture drawn of its central character is where Zero Dark Thirty most notably eclipses a film like Argo.

While Bigelow could have played up the heroic aspects of the Maya's and the Seal Team's work through big musical swells and panning camera shots, the beauty of Zero Dark Thirty is that pure restraint is used throughout. Maya is a professional looking to get her job done, warts and all. Any reverence for her end goal, or the importance therein is highlighted only at arms length. There are moments where Maya is clearly teetering on the edge, and her raggedness begins to show by the half-way point. The raid on the compound in Abattobad, shot mostly in night vision, in a lesser film maker's hands could have been used for histrionics; but instead of the mission being a triumph of justice, it's a downright horror show. As such, it creates of a sense of realism that elevates the film far beyond the typical historical piece. These efforts are assisted by incredible DP work by Greig Fraser (who is quickly rising in my estimation) that contains no shaky-cam action sequences, and very subtle music cues by Alexandre Desplat, that help set tone but never dominate to take away from what we're seeing on screen.

In a cast this big, individual acting highlights are slimmer, with everyone giving good performances that support the narrative arc of the script, that is of course other than Chastain. As of yesterday, Chastain was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress and I'm not sure there was a portrayal in an English language film that I enjoyed more in said category. Her evolution throughout is subtle, but obvious, and its wonderful that such a strongly drawn female character plays such a potent figure in the events that unfold. In every sense of the word, Chastain nails her performance here without being showy in any way, less is more. Clarke gives a strong supporting performance, and one can sense his weariness with the work he does in securing information. Also notable in small but completely believable roles are Chandler and Mark Strong, who plays the the Intelligence operative that is connection between Maya and the White House.

Zero Dark Thirty is not a "go team!" film. It pays respect to the work being done by the CIA and our operatives overseas, but it also doesn't shy away from the harsh realities of the work they do. The fact that two different sides of the political spectrum can come away with two very different reads on the film's messages indicates that Bigelow and Boal accomplished something stunning. This is a so confident a film that it completely side-lines its main character for the final climactic sequence until its concluding shots when she's finally brought back into focus. This is daring film-making, and with its naturalistic style and brutal honesty, I'm not sure I saw a better film this year.

I give it 4 out of 4 stars (or an A if you prefer).
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