Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Review: "Zero Dark Thirty" is History as a Great Story

TRASH IN MY EYE No. 5 (of 2014) by Leroy Douresseaux

Zero Dark Thirty (2012)
Running time:  157 minutes (2 hours, 37 minutes)
MPAA – R for strong violence including brutal disturbing images, and for language
DIRECTOR:  Kathryn Bigelow
WRITER:  Mark Boal
PRODUCERS: Kathryn Bigelow, Mark Boal, and Megan Ellison
CINEMATOGRAPHER:  Greg Fraser (D.o.P.)
EDITORS:  William Goldenberg and Dylan Tichenor
COMPOSER:  Alexandre Desplat
Academy Award winner


Starring:  Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Reda Kateb, Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Ehle, Harold Perrineau, Jeremy Strong, J.J. Kandle, Lauren Shaw, Jessica Collins, Fredric Lehne, Joel Edgerton, Nash Edgerton, Edgar Ramirez, Mike Colter, Yoav Levi, Mark Strong, and James Gandolfini

Zero Dark Thirty is a 2012 war film and suspense thriller from director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal, the creators of The Hurt Locker.  Zero Dark Thirty dramatizes the decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden, leading up to his death at the hands of Navy S.E.A.L. Team 6.  In my estimation, it is one of the best films of 2012 and one of the few truly great films about war in the 21st century.

Zero Dark Thirty begins with a brief audio recount of the events of the September 11, 2001 attacks.  The film moves to the year 2003 and introduces Maya (Jessica Chastain), a young officer in the CIA (U.S. Central Intelligence Agency).  Since graduating high school, Maya has spent her entire career focused solely on gathering intelligence related to al-Qaeda terrorist leader Osama bin Laden.  Assigned to Pakistan, Maya witnesses the torture (including water-boarding and humiliation) of detainee prisoners.

Eventually, Maya begins to focus on a mysterious figure known as Abu Ahmed, who is allegedly working as a personal courier for bin Laden.  Maya sifts through masses of data and information, using a variety of technology and her own hunches and insights, but the years pass without her finding Ahmed or bin Laden.  Back in the United States, the political climate changes; a new U.S. Presidential administration arrives, and Maya’s CIA superiors stop believing in her work.  Now, this one agent has to battle the system if she is going to remain on the trail of clues that will lead her to bin Laden.

Fascinating, intriguing, thrilling, and suspenseful:  I could go on, but I’ll simply say that Zero Dark Thirty is truly a gripping film narrative.  It grabbed a hold of my imagination and my heart, and I was practically endlessly captivated by this truly unique film.  It is a testament to the filmmaking and storytelling skills of director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal.

Boal has the ability to take a decade’s worth of intelligence activity:  the good, the bad, the boring, the important, and the inconsequential and to summarize that into one story.  He uses the most interesting and important information as subplots – all on the way to creating a riveting screen story.

Much has been made of the fact that Bigelow is a woman film director who makes action movies and other types of films that are usually aimed at men.  The truth is that she is a highly skilled director whose films are like no one else’s.  Her success is that she makes movies that absorb the viewer into the story by creating action scenes that not only matter to the drama, but are also sometimes the drama.  Not all of Bigelow’s movies are great; it is simply that for most of the time in all of her movies, she occupies the viewer’s imagination.  When watching a Bigelow flick, it is not often that I find myself thinking about what I will be doing after the movie.

In Maya, Jessica Chastain fashions a female character that is truly a heroine.  Zero Dark Thirty turns on the idea that one woman fights the system to lead the hunt for Osama bin Laden.  So Chastain has to not only create a female lead that can carry a CIA movie, but also create a female lead that the audience will believe is capable going into the dark places she goes and doing the contentious things she must do.  In a world of exceedingly dangerous times, of deceitful men, and of alpha males, Maya has to be a stubborn mule, fierce lioness, and the smartest guy in the room, all at the same time.  It seems as if she must also lose something of herself in certain situations and at certain times.  There are scenes in Zero Dark Thirty in which Maya seems like nothing more than a wraith, a human turned into a shadowy leftover by her cause.

I believe that Jennifer Lawrence, as Tiffany Maxwell in Silver Linings Playbook, won the best actress Oscar over Chastain as Maya because Tiffany, complicated though she is, is girl-next-door likeable.  Maya is a complicated personality and is morally comprised, and her dedication to her job hunting bin Laden is like an affliction.  What’s to like about that?  A lot actually, but it is easier to like wounded duckling Tiffany.

I am glad that Zero Dark Thirty had people questioning the filmmakers’ intentions.  That means that people thought the movie was worth the mental effort to engage it.  It is a great film, nearly perfect.  I think the raid on bin Laden’s compound, which takes up the film’s last half hour is a little clumsy in its staging.  Bigelow’s effort to “keep it real,” took something away from the drama and intensity of that raid.  Still, Zero Dark Thirty will stand the test of time.  It may occasionally be forgotten, but as soon as something causes people to remember Zero Dark Thirty, people will be ready to engage the issues it raises again.

9 of 10

2013 Academy Awards, USA:  1 win: “Best Achievement in Sound Editing” (Paul N.J. Ottosson – tied with Per Hallberg and Karen Baker Landers for Skyfall); 4 nominations: “Best Motion Picture of the Year” (Mark Boal, Kathryn Bigelow, and Megan Ellison), “Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role” (Jessica Chastain), “Best Writing, Original Screenplay” (Mark Boal) and “Best Achievement in Film Editing” (William Goldenberg and Dylan Tichenor)

2013 BAFTA Awards:  5 nominations: “Best Film” (Kathryn Bigelow, Megan Ellison, and Mark Boal), “Best Leading Actress” (Jessica Chastain), “Best Original Screenplay” (Mark Boal), “Best Editing” (Dylan Tichenor and William Goldenberg), and “David Lean Award for Direction” (Kathryn Bigelow)

2013 Golden Globes, USA:  1 win: “Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture – Drama” (Jessica Chastain); 3 nominations: “Best Motion Picture – Drama,” Best Director - Motion Picture” (Kathryn Bigelow), and “Best Screenplay - Motion Picture” (Mark Boal)

Friday, January 31, 2014

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