04th Jun2013

‘Zero Dark Thirty’ Review

by Dan Clark

Stars: Jessica Chastain, Mark Strong, Joel Edgerton, Harold Perrineau, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler | Written by Mark Boal | Directed by Kathryn Bigelow


Certain imperative moments in history have redefined the makings of generations. Their influence is so immense they forever shift political, social, and economical reasoning. Most recently we have seen this occur with the tragedies of September 11th, 2001.  From the second the towers fell America changed and our focus shifted. Our prime focus was landed squarely on the shoulders of Osama bin Laden the leader of al-Qaeda. Kathryn Bigelow’s latest film Zero Dark Thirty chronicles the decade long man hunt the United States undertook to capture and kill Osama bin Laden. With elite filmmaking and methodical story telling Bigelow crafted an extraordinary film that even surpasses her last critically acclaimed and Oscar winning effort The Hurt Locker. In fact Zero Dark Thirty could easily go down as a defining film of this generation.

Based on true events is a tagline we hear all the time. There is a negative connotation with it as it is often used as an excuse to over sentimentalize a narrative to elicit an emotional response. Here that tagline is more of descriptor for the way the story is carried out. The film is broken down into chronological chapters as it systematically retells this story bit by bit. Bigelow and screen writer Mark Boal had a clear-cut motivation when constructing this film. They are telling this story and nothing else.  We get no back story for any of the characters and there is no extended prologue detailing the events that lead up to September 11th. It presents itself immediately as we enter this complex world where morality is never certain.

Everything we know about the characters is tied to the case in some way. The main star here is the story and in many ways the characters are just cogs in the machine attempting to solve the impossible riddle of how to enact justice. Never getting a strong hold on it…always questioning…seemingly always failing.  Jessica Chastain plays Maya, a young CIA agent who is propelled into the field after the events of September 11th. Labeled ‘a killer’ by Washington she begins on the forefront of our interrogation force to find bin Laden. Dan, played by Jason Clarke, is another C.I.A. operative that breaks her into the detainee program. Maya is the main cog and we see her transform from a green rookie cutting her teeth for the first time into a hardened agent full of confidence and drive.

Chastain gives a nuanced performance that is one of the best of the year. She is strong willed to the point of need. If she doesn’t get want she wants she will do everything in her power to make it happen. The consistent failure does chip away at her, but she keeps going despite it. Conversely her motivations aren’t completely laid out, and it never tells us what is exactly behind her drive. Regardless of that issue the film is still able to get us to care about her character. There are small indications of what she is like when her guard is down, like her attempting to enter the rest of society at a hotel dinner, that shows how consumed she is with her job. Her face is a blank slate of confusion, because her mind is unable to compute the juxtaposition of worlds she is undergoing. One moment she is in a life of luxury and the next she is taking part in the torturing of a detainee. Chastain’s performance provides us an understanding to that challenging lifestyle.

Torture has been a hot button topic for the last decade, and this film will certainly reignite that flame. The torture scenes here are brutal and hard to watch. Bigelow pulls no punches keeping the camera on the horrific action taking place. Everything from the implantation to the effect it has on the human body is shown. Some could argue it goes too far to the point of sensationalism. That point is valid, however it is just as valid to state torture presented in this way is a needed function to allow us to completely understand the magnitude of what the price of torture is. It is not without consequences and takes a toll on all those involved. Jason Clarke also needs to be recognized for his performance. He is the main man carrying out much of the torture and he does so with severe veracity. You question if in fact he is enjoying what he is doing. He permits the cracks to show enough so you can perceive how broken he actually is.

As the chapters continue a time line of terrorist acts is contrasted with the CIA’s part in the war against terror.  Neither side is able to gain a true edge on the other. A small kernel of information builds up to point the one direction. Sometimes that direction leads to more information, sometimes it leads to disaster. We go on this connecting of the dots as the answering of one question leads to the questing of another. The amount of minute detail was astounding. What I was amazed by the most was the films ability to build tension. We know the outcome to many of the stories it depicts yet that knowledge didn’t take away from any of the suspense. Bigelow consistently reminds us with extreme detail that danger is always present. Stakes could not be higher as the slightest slip up could mean lives lost and years of work ruined.

Without question the best example of this is the films climax when Seal Team 6 invades Osama bin Laden’s compound. This was truly masterful filmmaking. It was carried out in what felt like real time and each painstaking minute was gut-wrenching. Like the overall narrative it methodically reenacts the event bit by bit. It provides a realization to just how delicate this mission was. Room by room they made their way through the compound never knowing what could be around the next corner. The absence of a score helped increase an already stressful situation. Gun shots gave a punch unlike any other as they echoed throughout the halls. Silence was only interrupted by heavy breaking and footsteps, drawing you in closer to make the shock of what happened somehow even greater.   It was the definition of a white-knuckle moment. Bigelow also smartly decided to not over dramatize this finale. There’s limited celebration and more importantly not a real sense of closure. What could have been an out of place commemoration of patriotism turned into an opportunity of reflection.

Zero Dark Thirty consistently provides difficult questions that have no true answer. Nothing was absolute. Each action or inaction, such as to torture or not to torture, had positive and negative consequences. Politics were removed and real life was inserted. It wasn’t about elections or approval polls, but about life and death. Never did it attempt to be the justification of the lengths the Unites States went after 9/11, nor did it attempt to be our condemnation. The goal, which they over whelming succeeded at, was to be a depiction. What you take out of these movies says more about you as a person than it does the narrative. Many can feel frustrated by that inability to take a finite stand. Personally I feel it’s the best way to present this material. Time will tell but I hold the belief this will be looked at as the defying film about America in the post 9/11 world. Similar to the way All the President’s Men was to Watergate. Masterpiece is a dangerous word attach to anything. It tends to create more detractors than believers. While it is too early to call this a pure masterpiece it is unquestionably on its way to claiming that title.

Zero Dark Thirty is released on DVD and Blu-ray on June 10th.

***** 5/5


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