"Zero Dark Thirty" -- movie review
Release date: January 11, 2013
Directed by: Kathryn Bigelow
Screenplay by: Mark Boal
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Joel Edgerton, Jennifer Ehle, Mark Strong, Kyle Chandler, and Édgar Ramírez
It is important to consider the context of “Zero Dark Thirty” before you view the movie. Director Kathryn Bigelow and her crew were already in pre-production on The Battle of Tora Bora, once believed to be a hideout for Osama Bin Laden. When the real-life S.E.A.L. Team Six raided a compound in Pakistan and killed Bin Laden in May of 2011, Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal started from scratch and decided to focus on the decade long search for the terrorist mastermind.
As it is, “Zero Dark Thirty” centers on a driven CIA agent, Maya (Academy Award nominee Jessica Chastain), assigned to work at the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan in 2003. She begins working closely with Dan (Jason Clarke) at the Embassy’s “black site” – this is where they keep prisoners of war for “interrogation” – and by interrogation, I of course mean torture. Dan regularly beats on informants, trying to get any information that may lead to the whereabouts of UBL (Bin Laden). Maya has no problem watching Dan mercilessly beat and torture men. Despite her quite eyes and beauty, she is as focused on the mission as anyone and willing to do whatever it takes to capture Bin Laden.
These “interrogations” lead to a series of men who work as couriers carrying messages between Bin Laden’s secret lair and his minions out waiting for the chance to kill more Americans. Their investigation leads to one name, believed to be Bin Laden’s most trusted courier. The only problem is that everyone, including the CIA, believes this guy to be dead. For nearly 10 years, Maya travels the globe, hoping to catch a break that will lead to the location of this courier, who can lead them to Bin Laden.
Bigelow, who won the Oscar for the 2008 film “The Hurt Locker”, does an excellent job of building gut wrenching suspense, especially during the first act of the film and the amazing final act. The film begins with a harrowing recollection to the horrific events of 9-11 before transitioning into one of the many brutal and hard to watch torture sequences. Bigelow misses the mark a few times though. There are times when the film lags and it’s these times the script takes a few liberties to amp up the stakes to make every scene feel important. Sometimes it works but others miss badly. The movie really kicks in during the final 40 minutes when S.E.A.L. Team Six is introduced and the action finally gets cranked up.
Much has been said about the stance the film appears to be taking on the effectiveness of torture during the search for Osama Bin Laden. If you take the movie at face value, it implies that torture was the key factor in finding Bin Laden. This is where the political debate takes over as to the reality of how effective it was. The scenes are brutal and often hard to watch but never once does it imply that the characters enjoy resorting to such inhumane tactics. Apparently, it’s either torture everyone or buy everyone off like they did in the Cold War. And while the film doesn’t exactly glorify the use of torture, it never outright demonizes it either.
Despite the wince-inducing violence, there are some really great performances that are worth watching. Jessica Chastain is intense and delivers a powerful performance but we never really learn anything about her, other than the fact she has devoted 12 years of her life to capturing Bin Laden. The film makes a point to the life these characters give up for the good of God and Country, but never allowing us into their private lives makes it hard to form any kind of emotional attachment to any of them. Clarke is solid as well but again, we don’t know much about him. There are plenty of supporting characters that wander in and out throughout the film, many of them doing nothing more than to serve as plot devices to remind the audience that this team has their backs against the wall as they search of a needle in a hay stack.
“Zero Dark Thirty” is not perfect by any stretch. There is a considerable slow down about halfway through the movie and there are a few times where the truth is being stretched a little too much to be plausible. Thankfully, when the action kicks in, the Hollywood clichés are thrown out the door, allowing for a few great, highly intense and realistic sequences. Some audiences may not be able to get past the graphic torture scenes to care about something they’ve probably already seen on CNN.
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