Friday, January 18, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty Review

Zero Dark Thirty is most certainly one of the best and most controversial films of the year.  Kathryn Bigelow's latest directorial effort chronicles the decade-long manhunt (billed as "the greatest manhunt in history") for Osama bin Laden and the toll this endeavor took on one determined CIA operative.  ZDT is much larger in scope and scale in just about every way imaginable than her Best Picture-winning previous film, The Hurt Locker.  And much like that film, ZDT gets very much right and so little wrong.

Jessica Chastain's Maya is a new-to-fieldwork CIA operative sent to Pakistan for one purpose: discover and expose terrorist attacks before they happen, with the ultimate goal of finding bin Laden.  Admittedly, the first act is a bit rough, and not just because of the harsh torture tactics used on a captured "money man" (who in part financed the 9/11 attacks), but because early discussions and events can be a bit confusing.  ZDT does not attempt or pretend to hold your hand at all over its lengthy run-time.  Names, places, and acronyms are thrown around as if you've been watching nothing but CNN since 2001.  "UBL" is, of course, short-hand for bin Laden, but it took me awhile to figure out that "KSM" meant Khalid Sheik Mohammed.  Bigelow also uses title cards to indicate dates and locations, but also as chapter titles, more or less.  The first chapter is "The Saudi Group," and it's actual meaning doesn't become apparent until you've fallen into the rhythm of the film and these different chapters.

It isn't until Ammar the money man gives us the name Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti that things start to settle down and really begin making sense.  Abu is supposedly bin Laden's trusted courier, delivering vital messages to other al Qaeda members...but has never actually been seen and is "impossible to find."  This one man becomes Maya's decade-long passion project; if you find Abu Ahmed, you find bin Laden.  The film jumps from event to event over the course of Maya's journey and we see her go further down into the rabbit hole as the years pass.  Each chapter/section serves an important purpose, whether to forward the plot or to demonstrate to us how dedicated Maya is in her pursuit of Abu Ahmed.  When her colleague, Dan (Jason Clarke), asks her to come with him back to Washington because she's "looking a little strung out," she quips, "I can't find bin Laden from D.C."  It's this frame of mind and dogged determination that pushed Maya to continue the hunt, despite hearing a confession from a prisoner that Abu was dead.

Zero Dark Thirty isn't nearly as action-packed as the trailers may have played it out to be - and that's most certainly not a bad thing.  ZDT is a very (in)tense drama with incredible dialogue and fantastic performances.  Chastain has already won a Golden Globe for her portrayal of Maya and is most certainly the centerpiece of the film.  From her first moments we understand that she means business and that theme doesn't diminish at all.  Thankfully this immensely powerful performance is surrounded by an all-star cast: (the aforementioned) Clarke, Mark Strong, Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Ehle, Edgar Ramirez, and in a much smaller capacity, Mark Duplass, James Gandolfini, Joel Edgerton, and Chris Pratt.  Not enough can be said about his talented ensemble, except that I wish some of the more bit players had larger roles, more specifically Edgerton and Pratt, but I fully understand that their part in the story was destined for the end.

Anyone who has been alive in the last decade knows how this story ends.  The assault on bin Laden's compound in Abbattobad, Pakistan, made news the world 'round.  A break in the case lead to the discovery of Ahmed's whereabouts; tracing his calls to his mother and his subsequent tailing lead to finding bin Laden's "fortress" compound (and in one of my favorite lines of the film, Maya points out to the CIA director that she's "the motherfucker who found this place").  Months were spent attempting to ascertain the certainty of UBL's presence.  A three-squad strike team was eventually assembled and equipped with experimental stealth helicopters...and the rest is history.

The actual compound assault comprises the third act and is some of the most intense, powerful filmmaking I've ever seen.  And it didn't matter that I knew what the outcome was.  Seeing this event depicted on screen, one of the defining moments in American history, affected me deeply.  I was on the edge of my seat and every door-breaching explosion or suppressed rifle-shot made my heart skip a beat.  I was actually brought to tears with the line "for God and country" upon the mission's completion.  Powerful stuff.

Ultimately the film poses the question, was it worth it?  Was it worth it for Maya to veritably sacrifice a decade of her life hunting one man?  The stakes were incredibly high and they took their toll on her physically and emotionally.  As the years passed she saw friends and colleagues come and go, some of them in body bags, all while she stayed the course.  The final moments of the film are incredibly bittersweet, as Maya silently reflects upon what she's gone through and given up in pursuit of the world's most wanted man.

Zero Dark Thirty is not fun, bombastic, or showy.  The material being dealt with is incredibly sensitive and still surface-deep for some.  Torture is not glorified; it was used to serve a purpose: to save American lives.  While Dan and Maya never outright show remorse for their subjects, it is quite obvious that it took its toll on them both.  They, and countless other men and women, did what they needed to do to stop further attacks.  Was it right or wrong?  That's up for each individual to decide.  The film isn't trying to take a stand, so to speak, but to simply portray what (may or may not) have happened in the course of finding bin Laden.

The Hurt Locker, despite being a fantastic film, seems like a warm-up compared to the masterwork that is Zero Dark Thirty.  Kathryn Bigelow shows her mastery of cinema with breathtaking cinematography, an incredibly intense third act, and writing and characters that we care deeply about.  I have no doubt that in time, ZDT will be looked back upon as a film that perfectly encapsulates our nation's journey and what our men and women in the armed forces and intelligence branches sacrifice(d) to bring justice to the man who orchestrated the worst terrorist attack in American history.

Zero Dark Thirty is a masterwork of cinema.

The Bearded Bullet.

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