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Guest Movie Review: Zero Dark Thirty

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There’s been a lot of uncertainty surrounding Zero Dark Thirty, the latest (and recently wide-released) movie from Academy Award-winning director Kathryn Bigelow. For months now, critics have been touting it as the best film of 2012, since it features a very timely story (the death of international terrorist Osama Bin Laden) and a stellar lead actress in Jessica Chastain, who was recently nominated (along with ZD30) for an Academy Award for her performance. But the reunion of Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal (also nominated) from their similarly-Middle Eastern flavored war flick The Hurt Locker has also drawn criticism over its portrayal of US-sponsored torture, allegations of partisanship and supposed access to classified government information. Besides that, it hardly proved to be the Oscars juggernaut many predicted it to be; while Steven Spielberg’s popular and well-received (for good reason) Lincoln was offered twelve chances to take home awards next month, Bigelow’s picture was only given five nominations. At what is arguably the biggest award show on the planet, not only will my own pick for #1 movie of 2012 have an uphill battle if it wants to win the night’s most important trophy, but it will have to do so without Bigelow even being nominated for Best Director. Only three prior times has a motion picture won the Academy Award for Best Picture without their director at least nominated, and the most recent occurrence was way back in 1990 with Driving Miss Daisy.

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The film’s own actions don’t exactly help its cause; the very first scene we’re shown is of veteran CIA agent and torture expert Dan (Jason Clarke) showing the ropes to rookie Maya (Jessica Chastain) at the expense of some poor soul. We are expressly told that this man was almost directly responsible for the 9/11 attacks on New York City, but watching someone waterboarded (among other atrocities) in the first five minutes is still a difficult situation to accept. Zero Dark Thirty is full of moments like this; hard-to-reconcile events that we can only pray are worth their own horror. Bigelow focuses on Maya as she works for almost ten years to locate and kill bin Laden. Besides the evils of torture, we witness many of the most infamous terror attacks of the past decade, including the London bombings of 2005, Islamabad Marriott Hotel bombing of 2008, and the 2009 Camp Chapman attack, all performed by members of al Qaeda. Throughout all this Maya displays a single-minded determination to finish her mission and protect her homeland.

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While Bigelow’s film has both excellent writing and a steady hand as its backbone, as important if not more so is the casting of the lead role. Jessica Chastain, who has practically dominated Hollywood for the past two years, is again a winner in this compelling character-driven piece. Focusing almost exclusively on Maya’s growth as a character might have backfired with a less talented actress; Chastain however is already a master of her craft, seamlessly transforming over the course of 157 minutes from raw and untested rookie to determined and talented veteran spy. Seeing her tangle with her (mostly male) counterparts presents great moments of drama and even some well-timed, much-needed comedy. Even the movie’s final twenty minutes, which features almost no dialogue from Chastain, can’t stifle her presence. It might seem a bit heady to proclaim her the next Meryl Streep, but with the variety of roles she’s already successfully tackled, I can easily see her racking up the recognition and awards twenty or more years from now. Bigelow doesn’t rely overly on her signature star, surrounding her with a bevy of talented performers (Clarke, Joel Edgerton, Mark Strong, Jennifer Ehle, Kyle Chandler, Mark Duplass, Edgar Ramirez and more) and even one legitimately big name (James Gandolfini) to keep things fresh. But it’s still Chastain’s movie.

Of course, nobody is criticizing Chastain’s – or anybody else’s – acting performance as what’s wrong with Zero Dark Thirty. Rather, people take issue with the idea of the CIA using torture to extract information from their prisoners at’ black’ sites across the globe, and the film’s portrayal that such monstrous methods were directly responsible for the death of bin Laden. The criticism might be understandable, but the cruelties documented here are meant as a cautionary tale. The truth is that the government ran torture camps to extract information from non-convicted detainees. The truth is that most of what was gleaned from those sessions was either worthless or outright lies. The truth is that there are no absolutes, and that likely some items of truth were obtained via these means. Bigelow isn’t apologizing for any of this; she’s simply admitting that torture, no matter how abhorrent, did have its part to play in the CIA’s War on Terror. It’s not even that big a part, since much of the film focuses instead on more typical procedurals – such as turning double agents, studying evidence and tailing suspects – in solving the mystery.

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So does Zero Dark Thirty have what it takes to win Best Picture? On material, talent, and execution, I’d give that question a resounding “Yes.” It’s got a hill to overcome, between the lack of a directorial nominee (what does it say that the overrated Life of Pi and Beasts of the Southern Wild now have better chances of winning?) and the recent success of Ben Affleck’s Argo at the Golden Globes. Both Argo and ZD30 tackle unrest in the Middle East, and are each excellent movies in their own right. But while Affleck let Argo get slightly away from him in the last act, Bigelow tells a taut, gripping tale that manages to overcome its own uncomfortable moments and shine as a testament to the human ingenuity, determination and courage. This was definitely the best film of last year, and the one I’ll still be rooting for on February 24’th.

 

John C. Anderson is a freelance writer and movie enthusiast living in Boston. His regular film reviews can be found at Hello, Mr. Anderson… you know, in case you’re curious.

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