Zero Dark Thirty – A Review

Whew. THAT was intense.

Last night I got to go to an advanced screening for Zero Dark Thirty, the last of the contenders for Best Picture to be released in the area. Commonly referred to as “The Killing bin Laden” movie, it is the most recent directorial effort from Kathryn Bigelow, who won the 2009 Academy Award for The Hurt Locker (and beat her ex-husband James Cameron, which might have added a little something to her enjoyment). Contrary to what most people think, the movie isn’t a Seal Team Six movie; this isn’t just about the execution of Osama bin Laden, but about the years of work that it took to find him. It is also important to remember that Zero Dark Thirty isn’t a documentary. It is based on actual events, but it is a work of fiction. Regardless, it was fascinating to see some idea of how it all unfolded.

I’ll admit that I had trouble getting into the film in the beginning; I was getting confused with who they were looking for and how all the characters fit together. It was interesting, but it wasn’t moving along very quickly. However, I slowly became more and more drawn into what I was seeing on screen and I realized that anticipation was slowly building inside me. Much like Argo, despite the fact that I knew that the outcome, I found myself getting anxious and a little stressed out. It was like a little battle was being fought inside my brain, where one part was all “what’s going to happen next?” and the other part was thinking “you KNOW what happens next, dummy.” (that part of my brain doesn’t suffer fools lightly). Zero Dark Thirty was a slow build for me and in retrospect it did a nice job of reflecting the mood as the investigation progressed; in the beginning, they didn’t have much to go on and were grasping at any information to make any connection. But as the pieces began to fall into place, the movie reflected the increased momentum and intensity that they must have felt. They could feel that they were getting closer, not just to preventing another attack, but in finding the man who orchestrated so much death and destruction. Bin Laden was the ultimate prize and the closer they got to finding him, the more on the edge of my seat I was.

Jessica Chastain absolutely shines in this movie as the CIA officer Maya whose hunches and persistence result in discovering bin Laden’s location. When Maya first arrives on the team, she tries to challenge the way that her colleagues have been thinking about things; she believes that bin Laden has changed his behavior post 9/11 and that they need to change their approach as well. She is convinced that bin Laden will be found by following couriers, a theory that will run into many dead ends and that will be scoffed at by many of her colleagues. She refuses to back down and, like a dog with a bone, this is all that she can focus on; she is so sure that she is right that she cannot be thrown off course. Chastain is really pretty incredible; Maya is originally reserved, but slowly becomes more and more confident in her convictions and Chastain is able to demonstrate the toll that this single minded obsession takes on a person. The performance is mostly restrained, but Chastain’s Maya doesn’t back down and is willing to go to the mattresses when necessary; she’ll mix it up with the CIA station chief (Kyle Chandler) when she needs to. What is interesting is that we don’t know much about Maya personally; all you find out about her background is that she was recruited by the CIA out of high school and that she frowns upon the idea of sleeping with a male colleague. Yet, even with so little information, you feel like you know Maya. I’ve long been a fan of Chastain’s work and Zero Dark Thirty is a great showcase of what she is capable of as an actress. She really knocks it out of the park in her first starring role.

Bigelow proves that her directorial Oscar was no fluke; she easily handles the more “talkie” portions of the film as well as she handles the spectacular action scenes. The scenes at the bin Laden compound were particularly outstanding – much of the footage was shot in night vision and the methodical search of the building was the height of the tension (and, again, this is when I knew that bin Laden was about to die). She was able to tell a thorough story about the hunt for bin Laden, yet tell it efficiently.  It’s a shame that her work wasn’t recognized by the Academy this year, as she was one of the directors who saw their movies nominated for Best Picture without a nomination for Best Director (the other major oversight, in my opinion, was Ben Affleck for Argo).

Some other thoughts:

  • Much has been made of this movie being pro-torture, though I didn’t feel that way after watching it. The torture scenes were realistic, but not exploitive, and do raise interesting questions about whether some of the information needed to find bin Laden would have been discovered without it. But I didn’t get the feeling that the film had a side in that argument; rather, they were just depicting some of the methods, such as waterboarding, that were actually employed. The film also shows the toll that doling out torture has on the agents that implement it.
  • The actor that conducted the interrogations that involved torture (Jason Clarke) was waterboarded himself so he would understand the impact of what he was doing.
  • Between this movie and the television show Homeland, I’m beginning to think that we need to start recruiting more red haired women for the CIA. They seem to be the people that are getting things done.
  • If you watch a lot of TV, and clearly I do, then Zero Dark Thirty is jam packed with lots of familiar faces. Other than Kyle Chandler (Coach Taylor!), the movie featured Chris Pratt (Parks and Recreation), Harold Perrineau (Lost), Jennifer Ehle (Elizabeth Bennet in the BBC miniseries Pride and Prejudice (the best version ever)), Jason Clarke (The Chicago Code), Mark Duplass (The League) and James Gandolfini (The Sopranos).
  • It’s a sad testament of our times that almost until the very end of the movie, Chastain is still referred to by her colleagues as “the girl.”
  • Zero Dark Thirty is a serious movie about serious things, but there are occasionally some moments of humor.
  • They don’t explain it in the film, but according to Bigelow the title comes from a reference to a military term for 30 minutes after midnight and also refers “to the darkness and secrecy that cloaked the entire decade long mission.”
  • While most of the theater applauded at the end of the film, I assume to show that they liked it, not everyone was on board. The first reaction of one of my friends was that he was glad he hadn’t paid money to see the movie.
  • I think I’m starting a new website called “People_Who_Can’t_Shut_Up_At_The_Movies.com” and I’m going to just start taking pictures of people who talk during movies and post it to the website. Seriously, it’s come to this. Even AFTER you tell people to please stop talking, they continue to do so, with no regard to how distracting it is for other people. People are the worst.
  • I don’t know if I can blame the movie for this, but I had some very disturbing dreams last night.

Zero Dark Thirty was a riveting film that slowly keeps turning up the intensity. It definitely deserves to be in contention for one of the best films of 2012; it didn’t dethrone Argo as my vote for best film, but I wouldn’t be upset if Zero Dark Thirty won. The film had a definite emotional impact on me and I imagine I’ll be thinking about the film for days to come.

Zero Dark Thirty opens nationwide today.

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