The 'Dark' end
Published: Friday, January 11, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 10, 2013 at 7:08 p.m.
‘Zero Dark Thirty” is a frustrating exercise that has a lot in common with the manhunt it depicts: Both are long, occasionally dreary efforts marked by stretches of tedium punctuated by bursts of violence.
‘Zero Dark Thirty'
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Joel Edgerton
The film, which has been nominated for best picture, is a complicated movie, and those looking for a more action-packed thriller will likely come away dissatisfied, but it's ultimately worth seeing. Director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal give us an exhaustive account of the decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden, and the strong presentation and forceful star performance from Jessica Chastain, who has been nominated for best actress, make “Zero Dark Thirty” a compelling, though unsettling, experience.
The broader plot is actually one of the least interesting things about this movie, given that everyone already knows how it ends. What makes “Zero Dark Thirty” stand out is the painstaking level of detail that's gone into the production and how Bigelow presents it in such a straightforward, clear-eyed manner. This a movie about obsession, the frustrations of bureaucracy and gritty intelligence work, not gunfights and military hero worship. The only conventional “action” comes from a handful of sparsely spaced out, ultra-intense suspense sequences, including a fateful rendezvous in Afghanistan between a potential terrorist source and a group of intelligence officials.
This procedural approach may sound dull, and at moments the information overload does slow the film to a monotonous crawl. For the most part, though, the look behind the scenes reveals a lot that we didn't know, and shows how credit for Bin Laden's death also belongs to the intelligence community, not just the Navy SEALs who took part in the May 1, 2011, raid in Pakistan.
The movie's other driving force is Chastain as CIA agent Maya, the inhumanly driven operative who keeps at the hunt for Bin Laden long after everyone else has given up or gotten sidetracked. To say Maya is single-minded is a gross understatement; she has no friends, no family, no life outside of her obsessive quest. While this doesn't make Maya a very interesting character in the conventional sense, Chastain makes her into such a cauldron of determination and barely-restrained fury that you can't help but gaze in awe.
Bigelow's directing style is never self-consciously flashy or stylish; it's clear that she has no interest in following the conventions of more action-heavy thrillers or in making any sort of grandiose statement, political or otherwise.
Consider the movie's opening scenes: The first thing we hear is a series of intermingled calls and dispatches from civilians and officials in New York on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. But all of the sounds are played over a blank black screen. Following this, the movie immediately segues into a lengthy interrogation sequence that does little to hide how gruesome so-called “enhanced interrogation” techniques are. Rather than use torture as a cheap plot gimmick, Bigelow asks the audience to look directly into the heart of the war on terror. (Those who say the movie “promotes torture” haven't seen the movie; if they had, they'd know the movie has no clear stance on torture one way or the other.)
Even the lengthy sequence depicting the raid in Pakistan is bereft of the usual military gunslinging thrills. It's an exceptionally well done, tense sequence, but there are no big shootouts or explosions; instead of coming off as action heroes, the SEALs are depicted as highly competent professionals carrying out another job.
With “Zero Dark Thirty,” Bigelow and her collaborators have created something of a masterpiece: A movie that takes America's biggest moment of military prowess in recent memory and asks viewers to examine the way we wage war in the modern era. It's a movie that's a lot easier to admire than it is to love, but there's no denying its power.
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