MOVIE REVIEW: Zero Dark Thirty

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ZERO DARK THIRTY-- 5 STARS

Throughout the course of cinema history, when it comes to war movies, the key has always been the pendulum swing between realism and romanticism.  Besides the fact that every war movie is really an anti-war movie, the perspective of any film of the genre can be measured between its degree of angle toward either realism or romanticism.  There are extremely good movies on both ends of that spectrum.

Very few (you can count them on your hands) do both because it is hard to be both real about the violent act of war while still being romantic and heroic about war for the purpose of entertainment.  For every realistic Black Hawk Down, there's a John Wayne movie that's  all "oo-rah."  For every sympathetic Saving Private Ryan, there's an unsympathetic clown show like Inglourious Basterds. Kathryn Bigelow's challenging and riveting new film, Zero Dark Thirty, most firmly sets its sights on realism over romanticism, because the War on Terror is a different conflict.  The enemies don't have uniforms and, other than the poster child target of Osama bin Laden, they don't have faces or names to remember.  

Zero Dark Thirty  offers its bracing look at a dark decade and the greatest manhunt in American history.  The movie makes no apologies for its methods and takes no stance with politics, so ignore the potential controversy already.With its course of realism over romanticism, Zero Dark Thirty offers no slice-of-life, next-door-neighbor stories of Americana.  There are no lovesick soldiers with their eyes on some girl back home.  There are no waxing, poetic soliloquies of anti-war personal reflection.  There are no bleeding heart moments of forced patriotism.  There are no stand-up-and-cheer moments.  The closest thing to a soaring pep talk speech evokes no initiative towards victory, but acts as a vent of disappointment after years of failure up to that point in the story.  

Zero Dark Thirty is a war movie without battlefields and generals.  It is a spy movie without gadgets, flashy stunts, and martinis.  Zero Dark Thirty cuts to the bone with a mission of sheer professionalism and searing focus.  The protagonists in Bigelow's film are hunters, not action figures.  The characters of this film are not here for the mushy stuff.  Their names are not going to be in textbooks, award ceremonies, or become posters on some kid's wall.  They aren't getting a ticker tape parade through Times Square.  Their life is the job, not what is back home.  They are here on a mission, plain and simple, just as the real-life events.  

Zero Dark Thirty takes us into the dirty work that most of us don't want to hear about. The films opens with an impactful pre-credits dark screen montage of audio clips from victims and witnesses from September 11, 2001.  The history this movie sets out to tell starts there.  Academy Award nominee Jessica Chastain stars as Maya, a CIA officer recruited out of high school and assigned to the station office in Islamabad, Pakistan.  On her first day in the office, she is introduced to the torture required to gain the leads she then researches.  Conducted primarily by her superior Dan (Chastain's Lawless co-star Jason Clarke) and overseen by station chief Joseph Bradley (Kyle Chandler), we too learn that this is going to be a different kind of war.

Over the next decade and change, framed by titled and dated episodes, we follow Maya, the Islamabad office (including supporting characters played by Contagion's Jennifer Ehle and Carlos's Edgar Ramirez) and players in Washington (notably Mark Strong, James Gandolfini, and Mark Duplass) as they track every lead possible for one single target: Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.  While trail after trail fails time and again, sometimes with tragic results and continued Al Qaeda attacks around the world (London, Mumbay, Pakistan, etc.), Maya never wavers or gives up the fight, even while always being passed aside as "the girl."  She presses on with the best lead she's also had, tracking bin Laden's trusted and regular courier, even after he was declared dead.

In a movie where, essentially, we know the beginning and the end going into it, Zero Dark Thirty ratchets up extremely good suspense, tension, and intrigue connected with Maya's diligent quest.  By the time we and Maya meet the anonymous SEAL Team 6 members (particularly Joel Edgerton from Warrior and Parks and Recreation's Chris Pratt) readying for the covert strike, the pace is quickened and the stakes are raised.  We become completely invested in seeing this story through to the end.  The final Abbottabad raid sequence, with much of it shot by cinematographer Greig Fraser (Snow White and the Huntsman, Killing Them Softly) through the night vision POV of the SEAL team, is one of the most memorable and brilliant sequences put to film this year.

With Alexandre Desplat's poignant and Oscar-worthy underscore turned off for the scenes, the effect is taut and chilling without coming across as a cheap video game trick.  Director Kathryn Bigelow, just four years removed from The Hurt Locker earning the Oscar for Best Picture and herself a statue as the first woman to win the Best Director, has set the bar high for realistic war films by stripping away the need to romanticize an unromantic subject.  Re-teaming with fellow Oscar-winning writer-producer Mark Boal, Zero Dark Thirty is longer and definitely slower than their 2008 masterpiece, but the story being told here demands more time, patience, and space.  Bigelow assembles an impressive ensemble of solid performers in very different roles.  Marc Strong, Jennifer Ehle, Joel Edgerton, Chris Pratt, and especially Jason Clarke really raise their respective games from their usual casting positions.  My local Chicago Film Critics Association has even nominated Clarke for Best Supporting Actor, a crowded Oscar race field filled with former Academy Award winners like Robert De Niro, Christoph Waltz, Alan Arkin, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Javier Bardem, and Tommy Lee Jones, along with big name sluggers like Leonardo DiCaprio and Matthew McConaughey.  I agree with his worthiness and think he can be a dark horse contender.

Ensemble aside, the absolute driving force on-screen is Jessica Chastain.  She's your lens.  She's your moral compass.  She's the top hunter in a movie of hunters and, as it turns out, is the most vicious of them all.  With the scope of history being covered, clandestine or not, Chastain carries the film on her back with a character pushing harder than the boys around her and above her in a man's world.  Following a breakout 2011 year (The Tree of Life, Texas Killing Fields, Take Shelter, Coriolanus) that culminated with an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress from The Help (eventually losing to her co-star Octavia Spencer), Chastain has followed that up with the one-two punch of Lawless and Zero Dark Thirty in 2012.  

Her performance here is arguably the best female lead performance of the year.  She deserves to nominated for Best Actress, right alongside her fellow SAG and Golden Globe nominees Marion Cotillard (Rust and Bone), Naomi Watts (The Impossible), Helen Mirren (Hitchcock), Rachel Weisz (The Deep Blue Sea), and Jennifer Lawrence (Silver Linings Playbook).  Zero Dark Thirty is, in this critic's opinion, the finest made and most important film of 2012.  Sure, box office fare like Skyfall and The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey might be more entertaining, but Zero Dark Thirty thrives on its no-nonsense realism to aim higher than entertainment.  Sure, the extremely good Lincoln and Argo offer their own doses of interesting American history, but they've been given the distinct Hollywood polish to tell their stories in safe and crowd-pleasing ways with fireworks attached.  

Without a doubt, Bigelow's film Zero Dark Thirty isn't aiming for that shine and sheen.  It earns its R-rating and isn't the easiest film to watch.  However, it is more than worth the extra effort and personal challenge to learn and realize just what stakes warfare and security have taken in the last decade.  Somewhere, the nameless true faces represented by Chastain and company are still out there doing the job the rest of us are not fit to do.  This movie applauds that, as should we.

LESSON #1: IT TAKES A SPECIAL PERSON TO DO THESE JOBS-- When the CIA recruits and looks for field agents and officers, I'm pretty sure not everything in their job description (like water-boarding and torture techniques) makes the proverbial classified ad and job interview.  The same goes for Navy SEALs.  With not a whiff of "look at my cool job" or "I'm better than you" arrogance, Zero Dark Thirty gives us ordinary people doing extraordinary things, some good and some evil, and, again, not in James Bond or John Wayne ways.  Best of all, we never learn a back story for any character, preserving the mystery that, for all we know, that lady in the checkout line in front of us at the grocery store or that guy shopping at Dick's Sporting Goods is a Maya or a SEAL Team 6 member.  Once again, these people are their jobs and nameless heroes.  They are imminently more dedicated and qualified than us to do them.

LESSON #2: THE REAL DIRTY WORK OF THE WAR ON TERROR-- Seguing from Lesson #1, the covert warfare of CIA agents in the War on Terror is not a pretty business.  As I mentioned before, there are no martinis and gadgets.  There's you, your enemy, the questions you need answered, few rules, and your own devices.  In Zero Dark Thirty,  we are taken through the dirty work behind-the-scenes that turns into progress.  Some of it makes headlines (both good and bad) and some of it doesn't, but all of it has become the "price of poker," so to speak, and the necessary evils to combat a hiding enemy without a uniform on a map without boundaries and in an arena devoid of a few civil liberties.  Like a few of the political characters we meet as the chase grows larger, I don't want to know how they got the information, just that it leads to results.

LESSON #3: THE PATIENCE AND DEDICATION OF A TRUE HUNTER-- As I alluded to earlier in my description of Chastain's lead performance, the character of Maya is just one of many hunters and killers in this story.  By way of writer Mark Boal's research, she is based on a real and still-active agent named "Jen."  As Maya, she bucks the stereotype that a "girl" can't handle the "hard stuff" or have the resolve to see a mission through to its deathly end.  We can talk about resolve and mentality, but the real lessons with Maya are the patience to maintain her mission over the course of a decade of cold leads, missed opportunities, and failures and dedication to never doubt her own intelligence and focus.