Friday, December 21, 2012

ZERO DARK THIRTY Is a Riveting Account of the War On Terror


- Zero Dark Thirty is one powerhouse of a film - a riveting mix of CIA procedural, real-life recent history, character-based drama, and ultra-intense actioner. Between this and The Hurt Locker, director Kathryn Bigelow is having one hell of a second act. She's making damn good movies - films that are ultra entertaining narratives that also have an immediacy, a relevance, an of-the-now electricity, that is unrivaled. What's so amazing to me about Zero Dark Thirty is that it serves as both a fact-based account of a landmark moment in recent US history, and as a smart, measured, non-politicized examination of that moment - of its implications on the national psyche, and on the psyches of those directly involved in the op. The op, of course, is the years-long hunt to find and kill Osama Bin Laden in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. It's a remarkable story on a number of levels, and Zero Dark Thirty brilliantly captures the many facets of what unfolded. Featuring several incredible performances, a no-nonsense yet still-multilayered storytelling style, and a pulsing intensity that leaves you on the edge-of-your-seat, Zero Dark Thirty is one of the year's best films, hands-down.

Bigelow's film focuses in on Maya (Jessica Chastain), a spitfire CIA agent who was recruited directly out of high school. Her whole career has been focused on one thing - finding Osama Bin Laden. And now, as she's shipped off to Pakistan - where Al Qaeda prisoners are kept in lockdown, tortured for any intel they might possess - she finds herself at the epicenter of that search. Bigelow opens the film on a haunting note - playing audio feeds of phone calls from the WTC on 9/11, playing snippets of news reports - reminding us of the horror of that day. With one fell swoop, she sets the stakes for this film. The evils perpetrated by Bin Laden and his agents are now fresh in our mind as we flashforward a few years, where the hunt for the terrorist mastermind continues.

But that hunt is going poorly. The CIA keeps coming up against dead-ends, and their methods of information extraction - cringe-inducing torture among them - are producing few useful results. In Pakistan, Maya meets Dan (Jason Clarke) - the site's chief torturer and information-gatherer. She also begins working with Jessica (Jennifer Ehle) - a world-weary analyst. They're all under the purview of Joseph (Kyle Chandler), their supervisor, who has grown cynical and short-tempered after so many of his efforts to decimate Al Qaeda have fallen flat. However, the arrival of Maya gives the group a new spark. Dogged and determined, she becomes obsessed with a potential lead that she believes is the key to finding Bin Laden - a courier named Abu Ahmed, who is said to be Bin Laden's personal messenger. Find him, and find Bin Laden. Easier said than done, sure, but Maya refuses to back down or give up. And her persistence and force of personality ends up sending shockwaves all the way to Washington, where the intel she uncovers, eventually, leads to the now-famous nighttime raid on a walled Pakistani compound.

Jessica Chastain is phenomenal as Maya. It's one of my favorite performances of the year, because it's somehow both naturalistic and hyper-dramatic all at once. Maya feels like a real woman, a fully-fleshed-out character, who has plenty of quirks and flaws but who you can't help but admire and root for. Chastain gives her the essence of the down-home girl-next-door who's also sort of a genius, and also just a tad crazy. But man, when it comes time for the big, dramatic scenes ... Chastain is also able to go big and knock 'em out of the park. If this was any other actress, we'd probably be complaining about overexposure of late. But Chastain is so good that you can't fault Hollywood for casting her whenever possible. Another big revelation here though is Jason Clarke as Dan - one of the most subtly interesting and complex characters in the film. Dan is, on one hand, a laid-back, friendly, easygoing dude, who calls everyone "bro" and amuses himself in the Pakistani desert by affectionately playing with monkeys he keeps around the CIA base. And yet, he wearily partakes in savage sessions of torture, inflicting great harm on his prisoners even as he buddies up to them. It's a fascinating dynamic, and Clarke plays it to perfection. It's funny, because in Chastain and Clarke we sort of get an microcosm of America in a post-9/11 world. Conflicted, filled with a mix of rage and empathy, left with lingering fears, and consumed by a desire for closure. Both characters also embody the film's naturalistic, non-judgemental storytelling style. Bigelow never tells us what to think of these people, never hits us over the head with judgement. She simply presents this story and these characters as is, and lets us take away from them what we will. That said, she also gives us a lot to chew on. The big issues - the politics of torture, the hopelessness of winning over religious fanatics, the debate of whether to use the carrot or the stick - it's all here. The movie makes you think, deeply, about these issues. But it doesn't do your thinking for you, and never talks down to or lectures the audience.

There are a ton of other standouts in the cast. Mark Strong brings heavy-duty gravitas as a CIA bigwig who reams his lieutenants for not bringing him enough terrorists to kill. James Gandolfini is the been-there, done-that old hat who sees in Maya the kind of vim and vigor that, perhaps, he once had. Joel Edgerton is badass as a gruff Navy SEAL, and Chris Pratt of Parks and Recreation provides some comic relief as a SEAL who gets his kicks from well-timed gallows humor (he blasts Tony Robbins on the way to kill Bin Laden). The previously mentioned Jennifer Ehle is also a standout, especially as she begins to form a sisterly bond with Maya and becomes a confidante. Kyle Chandler is a good foil for Chastain, and Harold Perrineau - of Lost fame - is also solid as a CIA techie.

I mentioned Joel Edgerton and Chris Pratt as two of the Navy SEALS from the squad that raids that Pakistani compound. I should also mention that, as intense as the movie is for much of its running time, Bigelow and team take it to another level during the last-act SEAL raid sequence. Even though we know the end-results, it's an incredibly-shot, white-knuckle ride that is exciting and terrifying, while also being strikingly un-glamorized and stark in its realness.

Bigelow and writer Mark Boal divide the film into titled chapters, and it's an effective tactic. The chapter structure allows the film to jump from year to year, location to location, in a seamless manner. Despite a long running time, the movie zips by with a relentless pace. And the tension builds and builds - as the spycraft, interrogations, backroom politics, and personal struggles mount ... culminating in that breathless raid in Pakistan. Boal and Bigelow attack the story from all angles - we see the war on terror as fought from the halls of Washington D.C. to the deserts of Afghanistan to the streets of London to the villages of Pakistan. We see the techies, the suits, the muscle, the soldiers, the SEALS, the moles, the spies, and everyone in between. This is sprawling, epic storytelling. But it's also of-the-moment and journalistic. The movie leaves a lot unsaid, but everything is in there - sometimes between the lines, sometimes on the expression of a character's face.

As for the debate on the movie's depiction of torture - to me, it's a non-issue. Some in government are criticizing the movie for implying that torture led in some way to the discovery of Bin Laden's location. In my view, the movie keeps things open for interpretation, and also goes to great pains to show that torture alone does not tend to yield actionable results. In fact, two of the key pieces of intel that propel Maya's hunt  forward come from bribes, not torture. That said, I also think it's silly and naive to act as if torture never works as a means of extracting information. Do I support it in most instances? No. But I'm also not going to claim that it can't ever be effective. In any case, ZERO DARK THIRTY handles the issue deftly - showing the emotional toll the practice takes on those who utilize it, and those who condone it as accomplices. It also shows torture in a brutal manner that makes us see it for what it is. There's no fantasy-revenge element in the torture scenes (as you might find in more over-the-top fare like "24"). It's brutal to the point that we sympathize with some of the victims, and hope for them to divulge information and be cooperative so as not to put themselves through such cruelty.

This is a movie that smartly opens up the debate on torture, on national security, on counterterrorism, on foreign policy - but not in a biased or judgmental manner. Instead, it looks at the cost that the war on terror had and has on the lives of the people in the trenches, and on the national psyche over the course of the decade since 9/11. This is a movie that shows us the world as it was and is. It's exciting, riveting, intense-as-hell ... but it also hits at a level of truth that few movies do, combining the thoroughness and intelligence of a great magazine expose with the drama, intrigue, emotion, and action of a great cinematic thriller.

Kathryn Bigelow is on fire right now, making the best, hardest-hitting real-world dramas in the biz. ZERO DARK THIRTY is a gut-punch of a film - a must-see nail-biter and conversation-starter - bad-ass, thought-provoking, smart, and poignant. A highlight of 2012.

My Grade: A

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