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Film Review: Zero Dark Thirty

daniel cohen reviews one of the hottest releases of the brand new year…


Plot: Based on actual events detailing the manhunt for al-Qaeda terrorist leader Osama bin Laden, C.I.A. officer Maya (Jessica Chastain) leads the investigation in this decade long pursuit.

The most shocking thing about this movie is how quickly it was made. The killing of Osama bin Laden just happened … how is there already a big Hollywood movie about this? Even the two 9/11 films that came out in the same year (World Trade Center, United 93) were five years after the fact, and many felt like that was way too soon. But let’s just get this out of the way right now … I have no idea what is fact, what’s embellished for the film, or how much access director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal had during their research. So if you’re one of these people who’s going to come in to this with their arms folded and say, ‘Oh, I bet that’s not true,’ or ‘Is this really how it went down … I need to know,’ then you probably shouldn’t see this movie. I don’t know what’s true and not true, but at the end of the day, I’m here to judge this as a film … not try and guess what’s historically accurate. And with that, let’s actually get into the movie.

The first scene is nothing but a black screen with audio of 9/11 emergency calls. While this is very hard to sit through, it’s effective in that you are desperate for the audio to end and get to any kind of visual transition. It was a powerful way of getting the audience immediately into the mindset and tone of this film. The next scene goes right into an intense torture interrogation as we are introduced to two of the main characters, Dan (Jason Clarke), who performs the torture of a potential al-Qaeda connection, and Maya (Jessica Chastain), our protagonist, and who’s first day on the job is this scene. With both these scenes, the movie really punches you in the face, catapulting you right into a tense environment. And theeeeeeeeen it slows up quite a bit…

The film heavily focuses on Maya tracking down leads and suspects that could potentially lead to bin Laden. And this stuff just didn’t feel that interesting. You see the typical cliche moments of Maya having to defend her far-fetched risky theories to her boss (Kyle Chandler), but we all know she’s right because she’s smarter than everybody else. The writing here is decent, but it made me think of how I just saw Argo where it was done way better.

The scenes I did really like though are when the big wig C.I.A. guys are all together in board meetings – shouting, theorizing, and just trying to decide the best course of action. These are the truly electrifying moments, and when you’re really able to get inside these guys’ heads. I especially like James Gandolfini as the C.I.A. director. It’s a small role, but he’s just that no non-sense guy who wants ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers, and doesn’t want to hear a bunch of pontificating.

The acting as a whole is very solid. Aside from Gandolfini, there’s great supporting roles from Kyle Chandler, Joel Edgerton, and even Chris Pratt, who you associate most with goofy Andy on Parks & Recreation, but here he’s one of the Navy S.E.A.L.S. This was smart casting though because people like Pratt and Edgerton are extremely likable, and the film doesn’t give you a lot of time to get to know them as it moves towards that big climax. Another weird cameo was Mark Duplass, who we know as Pete from The League. I have to confess a bit of embarrassment as I thought Duplass and Kyle Chandler were the same person at one point…oops. The actor I didn’t care for though was Jason Clarke as Dan, who works extensively with Maya. He just couldn’t keep up with everybody else.

But of course the actress who basically has to carry the film is Jessica Chastain. I have to admit, while she is damn good in this, I wasn’t completely blown away. Some of this was the writing and direction though. Maya was a good character — smart and tough as nails, but the movie tries way too hard to make her as likable as possible. There are just some awful lines of dialogue, including one where she basically says ‘It’s my destiny to get this guy.’ Come on…give me a break. There are also times where she is grossly overacting. One of the worst scenes in the film is when she is IMing back and forth with her associate Jessica (Jennifer Ehle), who’s at another location about to interrogate a critical al-Qaeda connection. Jessica is smiling ear to ear as this guy is brought into a secure location, almost skipping like a school girl, as she texts back and forth with Maya with ‘brb’s,’ and talking about how excited she is to talk with this guy. It just seemed a little much for what was about to take place.

This leads me to another major complaint, and that’s with Bigelow’s direction. First off, she does a good job with this movie, and I’m going to get to some of the incredibly well- directed moments of the film, but she’s inconsistent. In this same scene where Jessica is about to do a major interrogation, Bigelow tries so hard to make these characters likable and awesome by all the texting and smiling and IMing, that she telegraphs the scene too much, leaving no suspense when something bad happens at the end of it. And it doesn’t help that this is a very drawn out moment. Bigelow does the same thing in a later scene when Maya goes for a drive out of a secure building and waves good morning to a guard at the tower, and you can just feel it in the air that something bad is about to happen. It took away a lot of the tension that you wanted to feel.

But for all my complaining with Bigelow’s direction in the first two acts, I have to praise her for an absolutely unbelievable climax. The film is slow…but it needs to be for this climax to work, because you are just salivating for what we all came here to see, and that is of course the raid on bin Laden’s secret location. Holy shit, this was intense. Bigelow orchestrates and films this flawlessly. She knows when to alternate between standard shots and night vision mode. There’s no shaky cam, just a wonderfully shot sequence, and 20-25 minutes of gut-wrenching action that will leave you in a puddle of sweat when finished.

I almost wished this movie had two directors. Because while the spectacle of the raid and torture scenes are done masterfully, Bigelow suffers in bringing us those character moments that can truly elevate a movie to greatness. I can’t help but compare it to Argo earlier this year. Argo gave us that same kind of tension and suspense, but Ben Affleck also managed to give us those human moments between Tony Mendez and the hostages in Iran, and he did it with subtlety, as opposed to being over the top with Chastain’s character. He also did it in 2 hours, whereas Zero Dark Thirty is an unnecessary 2.5. The film could have used more subtlety in general. Alexandre Desplat’s score didn’t really work for me, and there are definitely times where there should have been no score. There’s a great last shot of Jessica Chastain, but it would have been so much more powerful if there was no music.

This movie is destined to win Best Picture. It’s going to happen. While this film may skirt the edges of being in my top ten because the highpoints are that damn good, it’s way too inconsistent for me to be completely enamored with it. This is absolutely something that needs to be seen, but aside from the last 30 minutes, I can’t recall anything that was truly memorable, and that’s why this is a very good movie…but not a great one.

Rating: 7.5 out of 10 (Very Good)

Daniel Cohen
Daniel Cohen
Daniel Cohen likes movies and bagels, and that’s pretty much it. Aside from writing Box Office predictions, Daniel hosts the monthly Batman by the Numbers Podcast on the Breakcast feed. Speaking of Batman, If Daniel was sprayed by Scarecrow's fear toxin, it would be watching Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen on a non-stop loop.


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