Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Zero Dark Thirty

Avenging September 11, 2001 With Just The Facts (And The Muscle) Ma'am

Jessica Chastain as Maya in Kathryn Bigelow's epic drama "Zero Dark Thirty".  Columbia Pictures


Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Wednesday, December 12, 2012

"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 office.

"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 incredible 30 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 half-hour.

Musculature has long underlined Ms. Bigelow's movies, and the mix of masculinity and femininity within her male and female characters ("Near Dark", Blue 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, "Contagion") has 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.  He 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 Grillo.

"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.  

COPYRIGHT 2012.  POPCORNREEL.COM.  ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.                Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW