Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Film Review: Zero Dark Thirty

In preparation for the Oscars, I went to go see the controversial Zero Dark Thirty.  I remember seeing the previews and not being very interested, since the ending was known.  So I went into the theater with no strong expectations.  And I have to say that I was very much impressed.

The story mainly follows CIA operative Maya (Jessica Chastain), recruited out of high school and tasked to the Bin Laden search team in Pakistan.  She is immediately introduced to the world of what some would call "enhanced interrogation" and others label "torture."  The greatest achievement of this movie is its ability to present the unflinching and brutal treatment of suspected terrorists without manipulating you to judge one way or the other.  The morality of the act is left completely in the heart of the viewer who merely presents the data and makes you decide if those who perpetrate it are patriots or monsters.

I would go so far as to say that the movie is a-political, a remarkable feat in our hyper-partisan climate.  Bush and Obama are neither praised nor blamed, but are mere players in the larger context.  And the context is the incredible minutiae that was needed to pick up every bread crumb clue that led to Bin Laden's compound.  The movie plays like one long, fascinating Law and Order episode.

But that is also its biggest drawback.  The movie is too impersonal.  I never really get deeply into Maya's head or heart.  And if you asked me, I could not tell you offhand the names of any of the other main characters.  Because this story is an important story for the whole country, I understand the filmmakers not wanting to make it about the personal vendetta of one woman.  But the problem is that even though the story is global, it must also be personal.

In the last half of the movie, we are introduced to the SEAL team that makes the incursion   But we don't get to spend enough prep time with them to care about them except for two played by Joel Edgerton and the scene-stealing Chris Pratt.  The actual operation on the compound is very long.  This is something you would expect in a movie that has been building to the strike on Bin Laden.  But since we don't know most of the team, a lot of the tension is removed.

Director Kathryn Bigelow takes this long movie and makes it flow quickly.  She draws you into this underground world of spies and terrorists.  And she draws out some great performances by Chastain, Pratt, and others like Mark Strong and Jason Clarke.

It is a very good movie that is also too good at its impartiality.  It tries to show the action impersonally, but because of that it lacks a personal connection.

4 out of 5 stars.


The meaning of the title, "Zero Dark Thirty" never comes up in the movie.  It is a military term for 12:30 am, one of the darkest times of night.

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