Friday, January 18, 2013

Movies: Zero Dark Thirty

Zero Dark Thirty, in its simplest terms, is about the decade long pursuit and eventual assassination of Osama Bin Laden. It's written by journalist and screenwriter Mark Boal and directed by Kathryn Bigelow, partnered again after their successful collaboration on the excellent Academy Award winning 2010 feature The Hurt Locker, which dealt with bomb squads in Iraq. Between the two, Zero Dark Thirty is the superior film. While it may not actually be any more realistic in comparison, it certainly feels that way (that said, it is clearly a movie, not a documentary).

Jessica Chastain expertly plays Maya, whose first, and we come to learn only, case in her CIA career is the manhunt for the Al-Queda leader. Perhaps having a female protagonist helped Bigelow more effectively connect with the material. As acted and directed, Maya is a compelling character. Some complain that she's perhaps too cerebral, and somewhat emotionally distant, but I found it believable under the circumstances of her job and of "the war". Even so, she's plenty emotional. The final scene, a simple long, mostly silent closeup of her face, is ample evidence.

There are those who feel that the film is controversial in that, for them, it promotes the use of torture as a valuable tool to extract information. Instead, I found that the torture was presented straightforwardly as a matter of fact, leaving the audience to draw and discuss their own conclusions as to its usefulness and morality (personally, I can't imagine an audience member having a positive or perhaps jingoistic reaction to any of the torture scenes).

Both Maya and Maya's initial entry point into CIA interrogation procedures, Dan (a nicely understated perfomance by Jason Clarke) are ultimately affected by the grislier side of their work (Dan's is grislier, in that he is more "hands-on"). Perhaps it's the quality of universal workplace banality during the torture scenes, that sense in the room of "just another day at the office" for the interrogators, that some of the film's harsher critics see as an endorsement of certain interrogation tactics. I found it enhanced the horror of the entire situation.

The opening of the film starts with only white, Courier text on black, reading "September 11, 2001", then a sustained number of minutes with just that black screen and overlapping audio recordings of 9/11 emergency calls and news commentary. It's equally harrowing and effective.

The climax of the film comes when the military infiltration unit, colloquially called "The Canaries", make their attempt at breaching the Pakistan located compound where Osama Bin Laden finally met his end. The surprise of this group is Chris Pratt as squad member Justin. Where audiences are mostly familiar with him for his work as the goofy Andy on television's sitcom Parks and Recreation (and perhaps his fine dramatic turn in the feature baseball drama Moneyball), here he is a ripped, imposing soldier. His reaction to the outcome of a particular moment during the raid is intentionally almost washed away by the pressure of the time sensitive and potentially deadly nature of the raid, but he communicates it mostly with his eyes and voice, and it's stellar. A small moment, but stellar.

The film is an embarrassment of riches when it comes to supporting players. If you watch a lot of films you'll recognize a ton of exceptional character actors. Kyle Chandler (who also plays a CIA executive in Argo, coincidentally), Mark Duplass, Joel Edgerton, and Mark Strong are among them.

I think that the Academy Awards, having upped their Best Feature category to potentially 10 films, will have to do the same with the Directing category. This is Bigelow's best work to date, and it's a shame she's been overlooked (though I wouldn't necessarily bump someone else for her; it's an impressive list of directors as is, 2012 a good year).


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