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Wednesday, December 12, 2012
Zero Dark Thirty
Avenging September 11, 2001 With Just The Facts (And The Muscle)
Jessica Chastain as Maya in Kathryn Bigelow's epic drama "Zero Dark Thirty".
Omar P.L. Moore/PopcornReel.com
Wednesday, December 12,
"Oh man," I said to myself during the opening minute of Kathryn Bigelow's
staggering drama "Zero Dark Thirty". You don't see anything.
You hear it. You feel it. That opening lodged in the back of my mind. This
potent jumpstart, and what follows of Ms. Bigelow's film, whose title refers to the military time the U.S.
elite Seal Team Six commenced its May 1, 2011 a.m. raid on Osama Bin
Laden's compound in Pakistan, holds us in its brilliant spell for
all its 150 tension-filled minutes.
The film is an investigative framework of the hunt to capture Osama bin Laden.
In a field of testosterone in an undisclosed location stands Maya (Jessica
Chastain), a fairly new CIA undercover operative. She witnesses a harsh
interrogation of a man who may or may not know who "Abu Ahmed" is.
("Ahmed" apparently holds the key to where bin Laden might be.) Maya is
slight. Don't let that fool you. She grows into the events around
her. She has one objective: to get bin Laden by any means necessary.
There are setbacks. Temporary joys. Bureaucracy. This will
last ten years.
I want to call "Zero Dark Thirty", which is
one of this year's
very best films, a docudrama, but that trivializes Ms.
Bigelow's commitment to matter-of-fact event filmmaking. If you made
investigative journalism a seamless big screen experience it might
resemble the construction of "Zero Dark
Thirty". Based on first-hand accounts of actual
events and constructed from unprecedented CIA access channeled via Mark Boal's sharp,
involving screenplay, Ms. Bigelow's excellent, methodical
direction steer this riveting, contemplative journey. It is
unnecessary to understand every piece of the investigation or the amorphous
figures involved. The film is interested more in compound and concision
than literal detail and intricacy.
The realism and cinema vérité of "Zero Dark Thirty", and its absence of
the judgment typically
utilized by filmmakers for military films (see
"Act Of Valor", trumpeted
for its "reality") makes Ms. Bigelow's film a forceful exercise.
There's little rah-rah posturing. I kept waiting for "Zero Dark Thirty" to lionize
its central figure. It never really does. For Maya, and Ms. Bigelow, it's just another day at the
"Zero Dark Thirty" doesn't ask specific questions but shows people
exploring them. There's no exhorting us to cheer the "good guys".
There aren't any. Ms. Bigelow depicts the intense hunt for Bin Laden and
CIA behavior post-9/11/01. She presents dates like bookmarked pages from a diary of signature
events, stepping stones that escalate breathlessly, plotted through
suspense, surprise and remarkable authenticity.
There's an efficiency and cool undergirding "Zero Dark Thirty",
whose events simply play. It's as if someone took a secret camera, left it on and walked away,
leaving it to capture everything, like those "47 percent" comments.
Ms. Bigelow's film is an assemblage of large, often silent scenes resembling
dominoes that slide neatly one onto the next, gliding like a lighted fuse trail
leading to a dynamite conclusion. And it does. Think of videos of
thousands of dominoes collapsing as each is touched by a preceding domino.
It's a tidy, astounding trail.
Kathryn Bigelow rarely sentimentalizes her characters, cloaking them in
certitude and quiet righteousness. You watch
this film and sense that Ms. Bigelow respects you as a viewer as much as she
does the craft of filmmaking. There were only a handful of Hollywood films
I saw this year where I felt I was being treated like an adult by the director.
This was one of them.
Mr. Boal, a journalist, and Ms. Bigelow assess gender relationships in "Zero
Dark Thirty" and make wry observations of them in at least two scenes, one
involving CIA chief (James Gandolfini) who asks a male
colleague about Maya. A laugh line offers a respite from tension. We
see how CIA undercover operatives live their lives: risking
them. Doing unholy things. There's no "pretty
please" here. Sugar and spice is for amateurs. Ms. Bigelow isn't a
sugar and spice director. I don't believe "Zero Dark Thirty" endorses
torture simply because it shows it. Torture doesn't yield favorable results, and it
isn't accurate to say that it led to the capture of Bin Laden, whether Ms. Bigelow
suggests it or not. This fact undercuts this stunning film.
Undeniably what Ms. Bigelow captures so effectively is a theater of
deliberation and psychology as opposed to war. Flashes of muscle are glimpsed
throughout until the heavy
artillery showpieces of "Zero Dark Thirty" arrive. There's an
minutes that is a movie unto itself, one detached from the handwringing of the film's
Langley episodes yet so inextricably
linked to them. My mouth was hanging open throughout much of the gripping
Musculature has long underlined Ms. Bigelow's movies, and the
mix of masculinity and femininity within her male and female characters ("Near
Steel", "Point Break", "The Hurt Locker") endures.
There's a mild, or not so mild, fascism percolating in some of her work, as
here. The director's characters are fortified by
quiet bravery but guided by fear giving them
inner strength. Maya, plain, confident and tenacious, stands out in groups of men. We know little about her
except that she just wants to get the job
done. Her lone female colleague (Jennifer Ehle,
philosophical differences with Maya about the approach to Bin Laden. You expect
a catfight. Ms. Bigelow is too smart for
that. Another director would not have been.
Ms. Chastain imbues Maya with a resolve and fierce willpower.
There's a sexist reference to Maya late on that underscores the gender politics
and slights that exist in the CIA culture and elsewhere.
Maya swallows emotions almost entirely but they flicker to the surface at the
right time. Particularly good is Jason Clarke as a seasoned CIA operative who tortures.
needs a break from this line of work. This hunt has engulfed him. He's
long masked his feelings about torture and is cracking, but like Jeremy Renner's can-do character in "The Hurt Locker", he
never lets you see him sweat.
"Zero Dark Thirty" has a intimacy and grandeur that transcends most of the
theatrical movie experiences I've had this year.
Large-scale war epics feel conventional by comparison. Ms. Bigelow's film
has a strong, unwavering heartbeat. There's no playing it safe.
This is serious business. "Zero Dark Thirty" gets dirty. We never look
away. We can't. As we watch this story we think about what America
has become over the last ten years in part because of torturous though not gratuitous scenes. I didn't ever look at my
watch. This movie is too good for that.
Also with: Mark Strong, Kyle Chandler, Harold Perrineau, Joel Edgerton, Nash
Edgerton, Mark Duplass, Chris Pratt, Edgar Ramirez, Stephen Dillane, Frank
"Zero Dark Thirty", which opens in New
York City and Los Angeles on December 19, opens soon after everywhere else in
the U.S. The film is rated R by the Motion
Picture Association Of America for strong violence including brutal disturbing
images, and for language. The film's running time is two hours and 30 minutes.
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