Y'know I can almost smell the blood washing against the shores of this land that can't forget it's past.
---The The: "Sweet Bird of Truth"---
Rheumatoid arthritis can play merry Hob with a lot of activities, pumpkins. Film criticism can be added to the list. Trying to concentrate on a movie while one's left leg is uncomfortably clamoring for attention doesn't add up to an altogether pleasantly rewarding experience (and what happened to the comfortable stadium seating so many of these theaters have been promising? I swear I'm going to start sneaking a blanket and some pillows in with me and stretch out on the floor somewhere).
But anyway, your Uncle Mikey returns from the front lines with a report on Kathryn Bigelow's "Zero Dark Thirty". Right off the tad I'm not certain Bigelow can take the Best Director Oscar, but I'd certainly be a happy camper if she did. I'm also currently pulling for Jessica Chastain as Best Actress. As for the Best Picture Oscar . . . I'd give it a possibility, but I'm going to hedge my bet here. I do find it interesting that this year we've got two Best Picture nominees dealing with conflict in the Middle East.
At this point I'd like to touch on an issue here. A lot of ink has been wasted on all sorts of political fol-de-rol concerning the film. For myself I try not to enter a theater with an agenda already in place (which is a big fat lie of course, but note I threw in the word "try"). Anyone who sits down with preconceived sociopolitical or partisan notions to watch a film shoots himself in the foot from the get-go. I certainly have views (and doubtless they'll sneak out in the course of this discussion) but ultimately I'm talking about a movie here, not a campaign platform. If the military raid which resulted in the death of Osama bin Laden straddles the world of the "thin red line" and the world of fighting being carried out by robot drones then it's hardly Bigelow's fault. She simply saw an opportunity to film a particularly dramatic moment in history, and I feel that ascribing any sort of conspiracy to her effort is, at best, a cheap shot.
More on that later. Perhaps. Let's get back to discussing the film and, retouching briefly on the Academy Awards, say that along with Tarentino's "Django Unchained", and Anderson/Coppola's "Moonrise Kingdom", Mark Boal's writing for "Zero Dark Thirty" makes this a particularly rich year for original screenplay Oscar nominees. Actually "Zero Dark Thirty" had begun as a project by Bigelow and Boal to film a 2001 operation which attempted to net bin Laden, but bin Laden was killed during pre-production (and yes, I would've loved to have been a fly on the wall when Bigelow and Boal first heard of that). Fortunately a lot of Boal's research easily carried over, and so it became a fairly simple matter (!) to update the plot.
The film doesn't try for a great deal of jingoism. People who were expecting Robert Mitchum to lead the troops onto Omaha Beach, or John Wayne on Iwo Jima, were going to be disappointed. But Bigelow (and Boal) clearly understood that the rules of warfare have forever changed; involving politics as much as helicopters. Under Bigelow's eye (and Grieg Fraser's cinematography), "Zero Dark Thirty" played less like "The Guns of Navarone" and more like Steven Soderbergh's "Che", or Costa-Gavas' "Z", with a bit of Jules Dassin's "Naked City" stirred in. The film unwinds in semi-documentary style, and a bare bones one at that. By that I mean Bigelow didn't linger overly long on the political insider maneuvering back and forth that doubtless took up a lot of time leading up to the actual operation which resulted in bin Laden's death. All Bigelow wanted to do was give us enough information to get a point across and then move on. Roger Donaldson's "Thirteen Days" could've used this sort of leanness (and almost had it).
At the center of all this is Jessica Chastain as Maya: the CIA officer who has spent her entire career hunting down Osama bin Laden ever since 9/11. Up until now I had only seen Chastain in Terence Malick's "Tree of Life" (which, although singularly fascinating, is definitely not the sort of film you want to use to judge an actor's talent). So much could've gone wrong here, but Chastain avoided all the obvious pitfalls. She wasn't playing either the Weepy Single Woman Looking for Love, or the 100% Dedicated Bull-Dyke Professional Woman (pardon my French). Rather, Chastain presents an image of a focused (some might say obsessed) individual who has been staring too deeply into Nietzsche's abyss. She's obviously seen too much injustice (and has had too many close friends killed) and simply wants to cut through a lot of bureaucratic red tape to get the job done. So many of the other characters in the film within the Beltway slam desks and tables and demand that Something Gets Done (notably Kyle Chandler, playing a CIA station chief), but only Chastain possesses the dogged determination to not only push along but to also goad and bully her co-workers into action.
(Both Bigelow and Boal also avoided the dreary temptation to set up some sort of romantic involvement between Chastain's character and a fellow CIA worker . . . or with any of the officers in the SEAL team which carries out the raid against bin Laden. Quite the opposite, Maya early on berates the attitude of the SEAL team members, having wanted to simply use a bomb. Chastain doesn't let Maya wheedle sympathy from the audience, but she shows us a person who is perhaps too close to the edge and is holding herself together with the greatest of effort. She's human enough to cower in a corner when things go bad, and determined enough to do what it takes to succeed.)
The semi-documentary atmosphere of the film is also bolstered by the scenes showing the patient hunting down of bin Laden's whereabouts by the tracking of his courier. Even with the aid of satellites and similar electronic wizardry, the process required an all-but-faceless assortment of people on the ground taking careful notes, and Bigelow moves through such scenes as if she were arranging pieces on a chess board. As for the raid itself, Bigelow refrains from blood-and-thunder. The members of the SEAL team spend most of their time hidden behind layers of high-tech gadgetry . . . rather like characters from a "Halo" game . . . methodically going about their work with almost mechanical precision (one is tempted to be relieved by the crash landing of one of the delivering helicopters. American soldiers are human after all). The downplaying of the overall atmosphere of the raid is abetted by Alexandre Desplatt's low-key soundtrack (there's a time for the musical chest beating of Ron Goodwin or John Williams, and this wasn't it).
Not that "Zero Dark Thirty" doesn't have its problems. The first third of the film is rather slow (an odd thing to say about a movie which, among other things, begins with scenes of torture), and it's not until a car bomb attack that the overall pace takes off with a very literal bang (perhaps Bigelow or Boal's way of reminding us that terrorist attacks can happen anywhere and anytime, and shake us fully from our complacency).
"Zero Dark Thirty" may not be Bigelow's best film. Hopefully she still has several years of cinema ahead of her. As she's demonstrated with "Hurt Locker" and "K-19: The Widowmaker", Bigelow has a talent for putting a uniquely personal visual spin on matters military. The circumstances surrounding the hunting and death of Osama bin Laden could've been very much in danger of being co-opted for this or that agenda or mindset. So unique a battle needed an equally unique escorting to the big screen and, fortunately for us, Bigelow was able to take the event in hand and help it escape not only adoption by mediocre motives, but mediocrity in general.
I rather Enjoyed the Movie.