Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty (2012) – Review

Review: Zero Dark Thirty is a taxing and intense dramatic thriller, ripe with strong performances and sure directing. The film is about the CIA’s operation to find and kill Osama bin Laden, which took over a decade. The story focuses on the efforts of the CIA officer that fronted the team in the field in Pakistan (named Maya in the film).

Zero Dark Thirty presents a difficult narrative challenge, and director Kathryn Bigelow does a magnificent job. The challenge is that the story takes place over a period a bit longer than a decade with multiple characters coming in and out. Plus, the whole third act (practically) does not feature the film’s protagonist, and finally the audience goes into the film already knowing the ending. Bigelow makes a series of good choices with her screenwriter Mark Boal to combat these potential issues.

First, instead of making it completely about the mission Bigelow devises much of the film as a character study centered on Maya – a woman who has devoted her whole life to catching one man. She has no friends, no personal life, and is even not well liked within the CIA for her relentless drive. The film feels so emotionally draining because the audience is completely invested in her, and feels the strain of her tireless work.

Second, Bigelow structures the third act to be utterly gripping as it features the two SEAL team assault on bin Laden’s compound. Not having the protagonist feature heavily in the third act of a narrative film is a huge risk. Most films would flounder or feel incomplete, but the SEAL team assault is done with a perfect mastery of tension that the entire audience is fully enthralled. Bigelow also gives Maya enough moments to still feel like a meaningful part while also giving her narrative a sense of closure.

When making a film with an ending that the audience already knows going in, the film needs to be more about the characters and the journey than the ending. Bigelow does this brilliantly, but again still gives the audience a captivating ending. The narrative has a sense of momentum as the information builds and the audience can feel the ups and downs of Maya’s (et al.) search. Maya’s emotional journey resonates with the audience making the stakes feel heightened, which is great achievement when the audience knows what will eventually happen.

Politically the film has raised some issues as well – namely the use of torture. Torture played a somewhat vital role in extracting information that lead to bin Laden being found – along with a lot of surveillance, ground work, and critical thinking among good CIA field officers. The film would seem to suggest that torture is a necessary evil to combat terrorism. It even goes as far to say that the information started to dry up after President Obama mandated that torture was not to be used by U.S. armed forces and government agencies. Do the ends justify the means, or does evil only beget evil – violence begets more violence? However, the film also shows the cost of torture, both on those that carry it out and on those that it is done too. Nothing is glorified.

Much like Ridley Scott’s Body of Lies, Zero Dark Thirty also seems to take shots at the incompetency and bureaucracy of those in positions of control and power within the CIA. The Pakistan station chief Joseph Bradley does not come out of the film looking too good. Zero Dark Thirty also points out just how much data is gathered and processed and just how difficult it is to analyze it – not to mention the resources it takes to fund all these continuous operations. It is an interesting look behind the curtain, so to speak.

The film is very good alone as an informative look at how the CIA found bin Laden and how the SEAL team infiltrated his compound and killed him. However, this would only serve the film for one or two viewings. What makes this film more than just a dramatization of the real events (to some percentage of accuracy) is its ability to drive deeper into the characters, the people who sacrificed parts of themselves and even their lives to find and kill bin Laden, or more importantly to try and keep America safe. It is this human aspect of the film that resonates with the audience and pulls them in (and makes this more than just a History Channel special).

Bigelow does not treat her characters like heroes. They are real people – flaws and all. The audience can see and feel the toll that the life and work takes on these characters, living in constant danger, working long thankless hours, and being asked to treat other humans as less than human. The film is exhausting, yes, but because Bigelow has done such a fine job with her characters and their relationship to and with the audience. The viewer feels exhausted at the end because they emotionally went on the journey with the characters (particularly Maya, who is exhausted by the end as well).

The film however does feature graphic seasons of violence and torture, and thus many not appeal to all viewers. However, Bigelow does not go overboard. The violence is actually fairly minimal given the graphic nature of the material. It is more emotionally and psychologically unsettling.

Zero Dark Thirty is ambitious in its scope both expertly telling its story and developing strong characters. It is an arduous journey, but one well worth taking.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Kathryn Bigelow has certainly asserted herself as the filmmaking authority of modern American war films with The Hurt Locker and now Zero Dark Thirty (though, I would argue that Generation Kill is a step above – but it is a miniseries). These films not only effectively tell their stories, but they also care about their characters. Her films are more so about her characters than events or action, which is why they work so well dramatically. She also is so adept with tension throughout these films that she never lets the audience’s attention wander (which is also why the experience of these films is so taxing). After The Hurt Locker, Bigelow and Boal seemed like the perfect team to take on Zero Dark Thirty, and I am not sure another filmmaker would have done a better job with the material.

Alexandre Desplat’s score very much sets the mood for the film as it pulses with tension and thriller aspects, ever driving the suspense. It is fantastic work, as always. Greig Fraser’s cinematography is gritty, which fits Bigelow’s realistic style for the film. Yet, he still is able to keep his actors well lit (maintaining the magic of Hollywood filmmaking), but not in a glamorous, glossy, or flashy manner. Jeremy Hindle’s production design also has a very realistic quality to it. Everything looks and feels authentic, which is crucial for a film like this.

The film is mostly filled with small performances as the narrative encompasses tons of characters for short amounts of screen time. Chris Pratt and Joel Edgerton are both very good, giving a relatable human face to the SEAL team that takes the lead in the third act. Mark Strong gets to come in and give a strong thunderous monologue that is great. But really, the stars of the film are Jason Clarke and especially the lead Jessica Chastain as Maya. Clarke is tough as nails as CIA interrogator Dan but he eventually is worn down by the stresses of his job, which gives a human quality to these CIA characters the audience is asked to take stock in despite their morally questionable practices (i.e. torture). Chastain is fantastic in the film. She is strong and smart as a whip, and not shy about letting everyone know that she is the smartest person in the room. It is her drive, despite the personal cost, that resonates so effectively with the audience.

Summary & score: Zero Dark Thirty is entirely fascinating, both from a story standpoint and more so its characters. 9/10

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