Monday, January 14, 2013

Movie Review: "Zero Dark Thirty"

I remember getting a phone call late the night of May 1, 2011, just as we were getting ready to go to bed. It was from a friend who said that apparently President Obama was going to make a major announcement to America on television within the next hour.

Obviously, only an announcement of great magnitude would be announced on television around midnight on the East Coast. And although the news networks wound up breaking the news before the president, the news was still pretty momentous—Osama bin Laden had been killed by a team of Navy SEALS in Pakistan.

We all reveled in that announcement, but what many didn't realize is the arduous battle it took to get to that resolution. Kathryn Bigelow's superb film Zero Dark Thirty is the story of the decade-long hunt for bin Laden following the 9/11 attacks, the tireless efforts of the intelligence community to track down leads to his whereabouts, and the operation which brought SEAL Team 6 into Pakistan that night in May 2011.

Dogged CIA analyst Maya (a fantastic Jessica Chastain) is determined to find the trail that leads the agency to bin Laden, but is unsure of all of the methods used to accomplish this, until she witnesses agency veteran Dan (Jason Clarke) interrogate a suspect. He plays both bad cop (torture and waterboarding are involved) and good cop (giving the prisoner food and water), and while it horrifies her, she knows that this is the way to get things done. And in this case, it ultimately pays off, giving them a name: Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, supposedly a valued courier to bin Laden.

The leads grow hot and cold through the years, and Maya is pressured by her boss (Kyle Chandler, continuing the supercilious government persona he wore in Argo) to stop following the trail that may never to lead to bin Laden and instead help to "protect the homeland" by finding those terrorists the administration can point to as victory steps in the war against terror. But Maya is not one to be deterred from her mission, even in the face of threats against her and those in her life, and she uses every bit of information at her disposal in any way she can.

When she discovers her instincts might be correct and they might have bin Laden in their sights, Maya is not cowed by those who doubt the validity of her sources or the information she has. In a humorous sequence, she keeps track—in red marker on her boss' wall—of the number of days that elapse after the information is brought to higher-ups in the administration. And when the ultimate go-ahead is given to involve the SEAL team, she still doesn't let doubts affect her.

Like Argo and Lincoln, Zero Dark Thirty is a movie for which you already know the ending, but that doesn't lessen the film's intensity or its power. Buoyed by a ferocious yet quietly emotional performance from Chastain, along with excellent supporting work from Clarke, Jennifer Ehle, Chandler, and Mark Strong, I found myself truly invested in the film and its outcomes, and even found myself getting a bit emotional when the SEALs ultimately had success in their hunt for bin Laden.

Much has been made about the movie's supposed endorsement of torture. I didn't feel that it celebrated torture; it was simply a portrayal of the techniques used in the intelligence world during that time. It is sad that people have lambasted the movie for this reason.

I don't know if this was an enjoyable movie given the subject and the intensity of the story, but it really knocked me out. Kathryn Bigelow absolutely should have been nominated for an Oscar for this equally taut follow-up to The Hurt Locker, and I hope Chastain wins a Best Actress Oscar for her performance. Kudos to Bigelow and screenwriter and producer Mark Boal for creating a gripping story with such a strong female character at its core.

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