Friday, January 18, 2013

The Will and Suspense of the Manhunt: ZERO DARK THIRTY

Zero Dark Thirty

Directed by Kathryn Bigelow
Screenplay by Mark Boal

     Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty centers on the chess game that was the manhunt for Osama bin Laden. It has so many layers of intrigue, suspense, torture and the value of independent confidence and the resolve of a CIA Agent and her quest to catch this man. The film depicts the highs and lows of tracking down the most infamous terrorist in the world over a ten year period and the depleted effects it had on the agents that searched for him. Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal have created a film that is not only a visual expose of the events, but a constant suspense-filled thriller that never falls off the track. Zero Dark Thirty is the best film of the year and easily the most relevant.
     This is a true movie of the moment and is unflinching in its depiction of the events that occurred during this search. The film opens with a black screen and voice overs which consist of 9/11 recordings from victims, first responders and emergency 911 calls. Its a chilling and awakening way to open the film. It starts the search, or where the film will begin from, being that there were bombings before 9/11 in U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Yemen, and then delves right into a couple of years after that horrific day and into the torturing of detainees.
     The existence of torture cannot be ignored when confronting this film. It is unsettling and highly uncomfortable to see any kind of human being tortured. We see an Al Qaeda operative being held in a CIA Black Site in the Middle East and he goes through water boarding and box stuffing to secrete information on Al Qaeda and its top leaders, including Bin Laden. There as been a lot of critic and news commentary and reviews revolving around the controversy of torture being depicted in this film. It is there. It happened. I like the fact that Bigelow and Boal did not hide this aspect of history and the post 9/11 world we live in. It cannot be ignored. After Barack Obama torture laws changed but during the Bush years torture was a way to force information out of terrorists. I do not condone and I think torture is abhorrent. It brings us down and puts us on the same level as the terrorists and evil that is out there. But I do not have a problem with reality being portrayed on the screen. It should be as honest as possible and not shelter itself from the uncomfortable realities of hate and the dualities of espionage.
    The torture part of the film is presented in the first hour but the brilliancy of the film is the fact that this is a detective, procedural thriller. (On a side note, how much of this film is one-hundred percent accurate is up to the viewer, but the feel and process seems solid and true.) Its a hunt to the finish and a picture that states the attitudes and emotions of a nation and the world. It is a great and has some toned, sharp performances, especially from lead actress Jessica Chastain. Chastain plays Maya, a CIA Agent, equipped with the task of hunting down and killing bin Laden. She is cold, steely and full of competence in her ability and the task at hand. She plays Maya with strength and independence, but you can see the strain and exhaustion on her face throughout the whole film. She is excited and confident when she feels she has found where bin Laden is residing in Pakistan and extremely drained when a lead she has been following for five years possibly turns out to be going nowhere.
     In a scene where a meeting is set up with another CIA Agent Jessica (Jennifer Ehle), the meeting turns out be a disaster and goes completely wrong, Maya is sitting in a makeshift cubical, appearing to be sleeping, but is just so completed drained and disheartened by these series of events. Chastain exemplifies and expresses the hurt and exhaustion in every pore of her face. She is set on finding bin Laden, and will not give up, but the brilliance of her performance is in these expressions of complete expenditure and the drainage and toil it takes on her. She is fantastic in this role, owns it completely and should be a sure bet for all awards she is nominated for.
     As with the intelligent, intense performance from Jessica Chastain, the same can be said of director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal. Bigelow's direction is crisp, informative and fluid throughout. You can tell this is a confident filmmaker and one that knows how to create masterful suspense and action. Even the opening scenes of torture, which are disgusting but feel honest, are expertly crafted by this duo, who also created the wonderful action thriller The Hurt Locker (2008). You are exhilarated, uncomfortable and desperately wanting to know the outcome of the events. They have a created an excellent political thriller that, even though we know the end results, I was constantly entertained, thrilled and extremely satisfied with the execution and professionalism of this film. How Bigelow did not receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Director is an injustice and might show a weakness and evident sexism in the overtly male dominated Academy. Easily the best directing job of the year.
    Boal's script is strategically composed and the pacing created through his script with the wonderful editing done from editors William Goldenberg and Dylan Tichenor is excellent in its precise pacing throughout the film. The script makes you feel as if your watching a meticulous news time thriller unfold about the greatest manhunt in U.S. history. The score, from famed French composer Alexandre Desplat, does not really come until the last forty minutes of the film but with its heavy percussion and deep horns it adds so much tension to the actually mission in Pakistan to get bin Laden. The pounding of the drums is so right on and placed perfectly in the film.
     As Chastain is the star of the film, I cannot  go without mentioning the wonderful performance from Australian actor Jason Clarke. He plays Dan, a CIA operative who initiates the torture and communication. He is outstanding in this film, never once falling off course and on his game at all times. He plays Dan with confidence, resolve and sense of place. He expresses how the toil of doing his job has weighed on him like it as with Maya. The only exception is Maya never relents or wants to go back to DC for a desk job. She is in it until the finish, on the ground and will not stop her hunt. Her and Dan's hunt goes beyond the hunt for the most wanted man in the world, but their desire for completing the task and never giving up on there mission. They are confident, independent and forceful in their actions.
     Chastain and Clarke have the two main roles, but there are a series of supporting performances that aid in the flow of the film and show Bigelow's perfection at casting the right people for the right role. Supporting turns from James Gandolfini as CIA Director Leon Panetta, Edgar Ramirez, Mark Strong, Kyle Chandler, Joel Edgerton and the aforementioned Jennifer Ehle. They are brilliant in each of their roles, especially Ehle.
    There is a scene in the film right after the two helicopters have left the base in Afghanistan, taking the troop of Navy Seals on the crucial mission of killing Osama bin Laden. We see Maya standing on the ground, alone, watching the choppers fly off to their tense-filled destination. The camera is behind Maya and the silence is so deafening it is chilling beyond words. Those men in the helicopters signify all her work, struggle and dedication. It has left with these men and she has to sit back and watch. Sit back and watch the world continue on while these soldiers are on a mission for a nation and her. It reminds you of the resolve it takes to keep fighting for your goal, but also that so many people, being protected or not, do not know the things that others are doing for security. That silence chilled me as it showed that whether bin Laden is killed or not, life goes on and we know that if he was not killed, Maya and her fierce strength would continue looking for him. She has to. That is who she is.
     Zero Dark Thirty is a truly effective detective story at its base. It is the best procedural thriller that I have seen since David Fincher's brilliant Zodiac. The search, the execution. But at its heart, it is a story about Maya, an independent, fearless, intelligent, badass woman who has to get through all the bureaucratic, political bullshit to achieve the results that have to be reached. Maya is a tenacious and exhausted agent, who at the end of the film expresses her relief and the fear of what comes next in her life and the countries. Chastain exemplifies the strength of her character and the undeniable strength of director Kathryn Bigelow. The team behind Zero Dark Thirty has made a film that is relevant and important, not just it then pure satisfaction of its suspenseful craftsmanship, but in the ability to get a job done at all costs and breaking down all the walls that come up along the way. Go see this movie. You want be disappointed.


  1. What I admire so much about Zero Dark Thirty is it's guts so show the events leading up to this very touchy subject. Guts, that you rarely see in movies nowadays. Good review Joshua.

  2. Yea, I agree. I enjoyed the no holds barred, detective feel to them film and the gutsiness of Maya, as well as Bigelow and Boal to tell the story. No patriotic hoo-rah-rah either. Great film.