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Saturday, December 8, 2012

Zero Dark Thirty Review

Sony Pictures
Zero Dark Thirty
2012, 157 minutes
Rated R for strong violence including brutal disturbing images, and for language

Zero Dark Thirty Review
by Joshua Handler

So many films this year have been disappointments.  The Dark Knight Rises wasn't the brilliant conclusion that I had hoped it would be, Argo was good but lacked suspense and emotional resonance, and Cloud Atlas was ambitious but never came together.  When I saw that Oscar-winner Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker) was making another war film, I immediately became suspicious that she would simply try too hard to make a film like The Hurt Locker and fail.  However, much to my surprise, I was completely wrong as she has crafted what is, for my money, the best film of 2012 (I still have yet to see Django Unchained and Les Misérables, but that will be taken care of soon enough).  

Zero Dark Thirty is the story of the decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden and the CIA agent, Maya (Jessica Chastain), who invests everything into finding him.  Written by Mark Boal (Oscar-winner for The Hurt Locker), Zero Dark Thirty is very smart and fast-paced, while still being easy to follow and riveting for all 157 minutes.  Boal writes some great dialogue and always makes sure that everything is believable.  His script keeps the drama mixed well with the thrills which sets the foundation for this film.

From the start of the film, it is obvious that Zero Dark Thirty is not going to be a fun ride as it starts off with 15-20 minutes of torture; waterboarding, sleep deprivation, you name it.  While the men being tortured are terrorists, it is nonetheless no easier to watch these scenes.  Director Bigelow doesn't shy away from the graphic details and that is one of the reasons that this film is what it is.  Bigelow tells her stories with no sugar-coating and an unflinching sense of reality that makes her films the most around.  I get more white-knuckled with Bigelow films than any other.

If this film doesn't earn Kathryn Bigelow a second Best Director Oscar win, something is wrong.  She has a knack for catching the audience off guard during a quiet moment and subsequently setting a bomb off when you least expect it.  This kind of approach to scene construction ratchets up the tension.  When something comes out of nowhere, it turns the audience on high alert.  But, Bigelow knows how to turn off the high alert and bring the audience back down so that she can go for another shock.  Also, she knows that action does not always equal thrills and suspense.  The raid on Bin Laden's compound sequence uses silence to build suspense; a very smart directorial decision.

Oscar-nominee Jessica Chastain (The Help, The Tree of Life) gives a powerful performance as Maya.  Whenever I watch Chastain, no matter what film, I never remember that I am watching her.  I always believe that I am watching whatever character she is playing.  As Maya, she captures the ambition and personal pain convincingly.  However, what distinguishes her performance more than anything is the change that her character goes through from rookie CIA agent, barely watching during a torture session, to tough, no-nonsense agent with a drive like no other.  Her arc is really interesting.

The supporting cast is also phenomenal.  Joel Edgerton, Jason Clarke, Jennifer Ehle, James Gandolfini, and Mark Strong all play crucial roles in the film and all do really well in their respective roles.

Alexandre Desplat (The King's Speech, Fantastic Mr. Fox) creates an Oscar-worthy score for this film. It is subtle, haunting, and gets the heart pumping when needed.  Greg Fraser's cinematography is excellent.  The use of (steady) handheld camerawork added a sense of grit and realism to the film that made the film feel documentary-like.

Watching a film like Zero Dark Thirty because it is one of the only historical films in recent memory in which I vividly remember the history.  I distinctly remember President Obama announcing the death of bin Laden last year and I remember the attacks on 9/11.  Seeing these events unfold in a time that I remember is very frightening, but also all the more satisfying.  I could connect emotionally to the death of Osama bin Laden.  When he is finally killed, I felt such a sense of pride simply because I remember this event happening, not because the film uses any manipulative devices.

One last note about Zero Dark Thirty is that I find it admirable that it refuses to be political.  It doesn't pass judgments about the War on Terror, torture, or any other controversial topics.  It is simply out there to tell a great story.

Overall, Zero Dark Thirty is another masterpiece from Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal.  I'll leave it at this: they are quite the team.


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