Thursday, January 10, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty


I suppose my admiration for Zero Dark Thirty begins with the fact that the people involved were actually able to get it made as quickly as they were. Osama bin Laden was killed 20 months ago, and the notion of flipping that generation-defining moment into a Hollywood production so quickly and fastidiously is impressive in its own right. But, as we know, speed is one thing, quality is another.

So at the risk of beating around the bush with continued disclaimers, let me say frankly that upon watching Kathryn Bigelow’s new film, I stand proudly in its corner, hailing it as a masterful suspense thriller.

The film begins with a handful of controversial sequences that are bound to elicit unsettling feelings in enthusiasts and detractors alike. Before the credits, while the screen is as black as the film’s title suggests, we hear the real sounds of real people in the final moments of their lives on 9/11. It’s a visceral, unnerving sequence that I’m not entirely sure how I feel about yet. Whether including the recordings is morally right or ethically wrong, they are indeed effective, and certainly set the tone for the film’s unflinching approach.
When the curtain is pulled back and the film itself begins, we meet the tireless and determined Maya (Jessica Chastain) a CIA operative heading the manhunt for bin Laden. The time is 2003 and America’s hear-no-evil-speak-no-evil stance on government-led torture is in full effect. Many of the film’s opening scenes show another American operative, Dan (Jason Clarke) torturing people for information about the whereabouts of al-Qaeda’s leader. These opening sequences set the scene for many things: chiefly, the film’s unwavering depiction of America’s (apparently previous) methods of attaining information.

Secondly, from a character perspective, they show us who Maya is as a worker, and a person. Initially, she observes these episodes of torment from the back of the dark rooms, watching closely but nervously. But as the sessions prove to be fruitful in gathering intel, we watch as her initial apprehension slowly turns to acceptance. This is a woman obsessed, which is written clearly all over Chastain’s stoic face.

From there, the film traces the hopes and failures and leaps of faith it took to track bin Laden. With painstaking detail and expert precision, we get an insider’s perspective of the just how thick government red tape is. Maya is the film’s anchor, but the movie makes way for many of her colleagues, all of who are played by character actors at the pinnacle of their respective games.
In addition to Clarke, whose blasé attitude to the men he’s torturing is as jaw dropping as it is terrifying, Maya is continually forced to jump through hurdles set by her CIA bosses, including Kyle Chandler (perfect in his inward rage), Mark Strong (perfect in his outward frustration) and James Gandolfini (perfect in his calculated authority). Édgar Ramírez, Mark Duplass, Harold Perrineau and especially Jennifer Ehle (in what may be the best performance of the film) are all superb as Maya’s mild-tempered colleagues, while Joel Edgerton, Chris Pratt and Frank Grillo all steal scenes late in the film as the SEALs sent in to execute the mission.

But much like Bigelow’s last film, The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty’s tight script (by The Hurt Locker Oscar winner Mark Boal) and frenzied execution are equally as important as the talking heads. Don’t get me wrong, Zero Dark Thirty is far more controlled than The Hurt Locker, both technically and structurally, but that certainly doesn’t make it any less thrilling. Word to the wise: this is not the action film that the trailers have made it out to be. Sure, there are sequences of monumental tension, which culminate in a thrilling finale that was so suspenseful it was almost unbearable, but the majority of this movie depicts American operatives talking. They talk in war rooms, offices, inside cubicles – usually about things that are difficult to understand, while using a vernacular that is consistency impossible to decipher. So it speaks highly to all of those involved that the extended moments of back-and-forth play as well as the explosions and gunplay.
I’ve been watching Jessica Chastain as an actress for all of two years now, and I can tell you with complete sincerity that her work in Zero Dark Thirty is the best performance I have seen her deliver. As the story evolves, Maya’s bloodlust for bin Laden becomes insatiable. She talks out of turn a handful of times (in fact, Maya singlehandedly redefines the effectiveness of the word “fuck” and its many derivatives), but mostly, this is a performance of expression. Whether it’s insurmountable frustration, appalling horror, or tearful enchantment, I was completely taken with every single aspect of her work here. We know nothing about Maya personally, but we know everything about her professionally. And, because Maya is her job, I felt in tuned with her motivations as well as any character I watched last year.

Zero Dark Thirty isn’t an easily film to stomach, but it’s not the action thriller I was led to believe it might be. It avoids any and all political affiliation, opting rather to stand as a cinematic exposé of one of the most memorable and significant events of our lifetime.  While watching it, I was reminded of All the President’s Men, which was made less than a year after the events it depicts. Many felt that film got some of it wrong. Time revealed its accuracy and filmic wonderment, which my heart of hearts tells me is precisely what will happen here. A

41 comments:

  1. Hey I'm glad you enjoyed it. As for me I was unfortunately very underwhelmed. It had a very well done finale but I thought the middle seriously dragged and the lack of character development for me made the movie seem very cold. At the moment I'm siding with Ebert in thinking it's a great recollection of facts but that doesn't make it great entertainment. Are you rooting for it at the oscars or no?
    -Dan

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    1. I've heard a few people take your stance on the film, and hey, fair enough. Usually, lack of character development irks the hell out of me, but like I said, I felt in tuned to Maya's motivations completely, which led me to be wholly enthralled.

      Oscars... as of now, if I was a voter, I'd vote for Chastain, but that's it. Who knows, when I rewatch Amour, that could very well change.

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  2. I'm going to see this film this weekend. Expect a review to come out around that time.

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  3. Also gave it an A, my 2nd favourite film of the year. Can't wait to see it in the cinemas again! Good review, I thought Clarke was fantastic, an underrated performance.

    Will have to read this review in more depth when I'm not looking over my shoulder at work! haha

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    1. Nice man, love that we agree all the way here. Clarke really killed it. He was funny, terrifying, and just a regular fella. I love his swift transition from the field to the office. Just like: "Hey, it's a job."

      I can't wait to see this again either.

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  4. I've been reading widely mixed reviews of this movie and I am still on the fence about whether it's for me. Weighing everything I've read, there seems to be a roughly equal balance of aspects I'd appreciate and things I'd find exploitative. Plus these events are still so recent, it would be hard to keep my own political feelings out of it. :-)

    I should probably just see the damn movie and make up my own mind. But I'll probably wait until it comes to Netflix DVD or streaming.

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    1. I actually hadn't heard anything remotely negative until the bloggers got ahold of it, but that's all fair enough. Much like The Hurt Locker, it isn't for everyone. At all. It is unlike any spy/terrorist/government inaction thriller I've ever seen.

      And it's funny, because the film is so apolitical, I found it very easy to leave my own stances out of it. Very very well done.

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    2. Those are all fair points. The fact that you describe it as apolitical makes me more interested in seeing this.

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    3. BTW, when I mentioned widely mixed reviews, I'm not sure whether I was referring to professional reviews, blogger reviews, or both. I don't really value one more than the other. And the organizer drawer in my brain doesn't work as well as it used to. :-)

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    4. Apolitical it is indeed. Trust me on this, it has NO agenda. I love that people boycotted it... before even seeing it. (Sigh).

      HA, loved your second comment. I don't value one more than the other either! I love that so many of us do this for free, with nothing to loose. We do it because we love it.

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  5. This movie is amazing and I don't care what the whole argument is about it being pro-torture and whatnot. Is it's message a bit skewered? Yes, but does that take away from the final-product and what it does to your mind when your watching? Hell to the no! It's a great movie and I'm very surprised that Bigelow didn't even get a nomination. Good review bud.

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    1. Dude, I don't understand the "pro-torture" bit at all. This film depicts actual events how they actually went down. I think some people are pissed and frightened and appalled by the fact that Americans (whose salaries the rest of us pay for) were paid to physically abuse people for information. But it happened. It's documented. Don't blame the filmmaker, blame the people in charge from 8 years ago.

      I'll just never understand the notion of blaming a film, makes no sense to me.

      Glad you liked this one as much as I did, Dan!

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  6. Completely in agreement with you here, remarkably tense and harrowing. I hope the 'controversy' surrounding the film won't deter people from seeing this amazing piece of docudrama. Just like the Hurt Locker it didn't take a political stance, it just presents the people and events as they happened. If anything I felt the message was anti-torture, as the information they were getting out of the detainees under duress was almost unusable and unreliable. It was through bribes, research and using good old spying techniques that really got Bin Laden in the end. It really is a triumph for the ladies, with both Bigelow and Chastain giving it their all.

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    1. "An amazing piece of docudrama." EXACTLY! This film has never pretended to be a documentary. It is a few people's depiction of what went down behind several closed doors over the course of a decade. I just think the controversy surrounding this is damn silly.

      Totally agree with the rest of your comment. The intel extracted through torture was pretty much useless. People gave in to fancy cars and cash money. Bigelow and Chastain both deserve much praise here.

      Glad you dug this one, my friend.

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  7. "We know nothing about Maya personally, but we know everything about her professionally. And, because Maya is her job, I felt in tuned with her motivations as well as any character I watched last year."

    Perfectly stated. Movies with characters like that are always trying to force-feed something on the homefront to underscore their plight but I love how they let Maya just speak for herself without, in so many ways, having her speak ABOUT herself. Just a wonderfully constructed character.

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    1. Thanks man. It seems there are those of us who "get" what Bigelow and Boal were going for with Maya's character, and others who believe she was one dimensional and underdeveloped. I thought it was a unique twist on the usual type of American spy character we see all too often. Thanks for the comment!

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  8. I really did not care for The Hurt Locker, and was expecting the same in this case. I did like it more, especially due to the last act, but only just.

    I liked how non-glitzy it was. Some parts were REALLY obvious, like the Ehle part, but Maya with the body bag almost won me over.

    Good review.

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    1. My girlfriend said the same thing about the Ehle part, and she said that is solely because she watched the trailer for the film, which I had not. That's a damn shame. Trailers spoiling their movies is so so sad, but definitely not a fault of the movie at all. Sorry, that was a long way for me to say that I didn't think that scene was obvious at all. I thought it could go the way it did, or it could very well go another way as well. (Question: did you think the restaurant scene with Ehle and Chastain was obvious?).

      Any how, glad you liked aspects of it. I can completely understand why this wouldn't fully be for everyone.

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    2. No not the trailer, the goddamn black cat.

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    3. Ahh gotcha. Shit man, I didn't even see that little black beast.

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  9. Loved this film. Chastain was amazing as usual and Bigelow is an ACE at this military/CIA procedural stuff. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed such a dark, long/tedious, and depressing film, but I friggin loved it.

    Just reviewed the flick at my blog also. Excellent write up here pal. Congrats.

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    1. Nice man, really glad you dug this one as much as I did. I can see why some people aren't into it, but shit, it worked for me on so many levels.

      Chastain... she really killed it, huh? Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting! I'll scope out your review soon.

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  10. Your review is better than this movie. I found it average and at times disgusting. The film which is "inspired by facts" suggests there are CIA secret sites where there aren't any and that certain people in Bin Laden's entourage during the raid were armed while they weren't. And that opening sequence...I feel appalled that they did that.

    The black cat aside, Chastain..."I'm the motherfucker who found that place" was the worst line I've heard in a while. I couldn't believe her, nor that whole movie especially when she tells those guys to catch Bin Laden "for her". The only three people I enjoyed watching were Ehle, Gandolfini and Strong. I'd follow them, I'd never follow Chastain's Maya.

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    1. Yeah I rolled my eyes at the motherfucker line as well.

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    2. Sati: I remember reading your tweets after you saw this flick, and, much like my beloved Girls, I respectfully disagree with your thoughts on this one. I will say though that I'm glad you enjoy my writing as much as I enjoy yours, concerning movies that our opinions differ so drastically on. I LOVE your clever, engaging bashes, even if I love the movie. So, that's pretty damn unique I think.

      Also, just curious, but how to you know about that lack of CIA secret sites and guns at bin Laden's compound? Wondering if you're secretly tapped into things we aren't ;)

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    3. Also, I thought the "motherfucker" line was one of the best of this or any year. My jaw dropped. I loved it.

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    4. The press was sniffing around in a lot of countries in Europe where the possible secret sites can be and the places they showed in the movie weren't even in suspicion of that. It was the whole anti-war agenda suggesting that America is using their allies to keep their prisoners of war on other countries' territories without the people knowing and even high officials agreeing to that.

      Problem is that they obviously didn't do any research. Had they suggested some woods in a shithole in mountains, that's cool - I mean who the hell knows what's there. But they shown actual cities that weren't even mentioned in articles, investigations and even common rumors. They took the easy, sloppy route. It's like they pointed on the map and said "Oh, this looks good!"

      As for the guns - Bin Laden's sons who were shown to be armed in this sequence weren't and that is straight from the reports on the raid. It was just a typical use of a lie to get shoot out going, which I think in the movie that is reportedly so truthful as the creators claim is dishonest.

      Those are really tiny things that took me out of the film, my major problems were with the opening sequence and the real life explosions used in such a tacky way. Actual people died there and they used those solely to manipulate their audience.

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    5. Thanks for coming back and explaining your points. Like I've said before, even though we disagree on the film, I always enjoy hearing your input. Always.

      I understand your major qualms, and again, I'm not entirely sure how I feel about the opening either. But if I were to bash this film's use of real footage, then it'd only be fair to bash other films that have done the same. United 93 comes to mind, as does The Deer Hunter. Cimino cut in actual newsreel shots of the war in his film, and while they aren't as graphic as ZD30's, they certainly are manipulative. That could make for an interesting essay...

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    6. No problem, I try to respond to comments I leave on blogs as often as I can :)

      I haven't seen United 93 and I saw Deer Hunter a long time ago so I don't really remember how I felt about it there. I think it's more of a subjective thing - the film worked for you so I wouldn't have trouble understanding why you think it was a justified use of real footage. It didn't work for me, it didn't get an emotional response from me so that's why I feel it was unjustified, but again it's just my feeling :)

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    7. Damn right. We like what we like, and we feel what we feel. I'll never understand people trying to argue otherwise.

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  11. Great review! I'd give it an A as well. I'm flirting with including it in my top 10 list, but it's just on the outside at the moment. Fine work by the cast and crew, regardless.

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    1. Hell yeah man. Simply cannot wait for your Top 10 list. Even though I'm sure I won't love some of your picks as much as you do... who cares!? Let me know the minute you post it!

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    2. Thanks. Haha. I will warn you: Les Mis is on there. However, we have 4 of the same films on our lists. Shooting for Thursday, but I'll let you know when it's posted!

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    3. Good stuff man! Ha, it's all good about Les Mis. I didn't write a review for it because musicals are admittedly not my thing. It would've been damn near impossible for me to enjoy that movie, no matter how it was pulled off.

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  12. There has been some criticism in more conservative circles as to the accuracy of the depiction of torture in the film, being John McCain one of the most ardent voices standing against it.
    As you suggest, history will slowly reveal whether or not the film makes the right conclusions, showing some of the truth that has been so hard to get at ever since "the war on terror" began.
    I can't wait to see this film, the opportunity has not yet presented itself unfortunately, but sooner rather than later...hopefully!
    Great review!

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    1. Thanks so much! Yeah, let the historians sort out what actually happened. From where I'm sitting, on the basis of FILM only, this is a damn fine achievement. Hope you get to see it soon!

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  13. Great review, buddy!

    Looking forward to seeing this soon. Hopefully next week. It has an amazing cast. Got to love Mark Strong, Jason Clarke, and Chastain. They always bring their A-game.

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    1. Thanks man! Highly recommend this one. Strong, Clarke and particularly Chastain are remarkable. Really powerful stuff.

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  14. I agree with the review, but thats exactly why i didnt care for the film. I was hoping for Hurt Locker part 2 and this wasnt it :/

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    1. No sir, it certainly is not. And I get your point, so that's fair enough. This one really worked for me.

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