It isn't easy maintaining dramatic tension when everybody already knows how the story ends. But, Zero Dark Thirty manages to do this in subtle, gritty, and outrageous ways. You know Osama bin Laden dies. You probably even know that one of the two stealth helicopters used for the mission crashes at the bin Laden compound. But, you do not know the twisting story that leads to that moment and it is a story expertly told to striking effect by director Kathryn Bigelow.
Much of the early press about Zero Dark Thirty was about the torture sequences at the front-end of the 2 hour and 37 minute film. Some thought the film actually advocated torture. Some thought the scenes were gruesome and inaccurately reflected how much such tactics contributed to finding bin Laden. I disagree. First of all, I have seen far more grotesque torture scenes in other films. Check out what they do to Leonardo DiCaprio in the Ridley Scott film Body of Lies, for example. Zero Dark Thirty is not light-weight for sure, but neither it is the torture fest some of the squeamish might wish to paint it. And yeah, America uses torture in times of war, official policy or not, so get real.
Secondly, it is widely overlooked that one of the reasons it takes over 100 days for the CIA to actually act after the bin Laden compound is found is that there is no direct evidence bin Laden is there and most of what they know was obtained from "prisoners under duress." These torture scenes need not even be debated, the film shows them but clearly discounts them as well. They are not overly emphasized, they are not gratuitous, and you do not see them after the first half hour of the movie. In no way did the film give me the impression of anything other than ambiguity toward torture.
That said, the scenes are very useful in heightening the sense of tension and of what is at stake here. This is a no-holds-barred situation and the viewer is placed almost immediately in the middle of an intense, abusive, and desperate search for information. Jessica Chastain gives a strong performance as Maya, the central character, thrust into these torture situations. She, like the audience, has difficulty watching them and participating in them yet she manages to do her part. It is her first step on her road to desensitizing herself to the work she must do in order to find bin Laden. More than anything else, the film uses these establishing scenes to connect the audience with Maya.
It is a critical connection. Zero Dark Thirty is fast-paced and throws a lot of names, faces, characters, places, and events right at Maya and the audience. We are in this thing with her, she is the fictional thread that ties all the facts and frequent dead-ends together in the tangled journey to get bin Laden.
After we get past the literally tortuous phase of the film, we are then invested with Maya and her investigation, which is a good thing because the filmmakers make no effort to explain anything to us other than what you see happening on the screen. New characters, many of them Muslim, are presented to us in rapid-fire fashion. You don't always know who this or that person is or why they are doing what they do, but you have to just go with it. In this sense I think the film gives us a taste of what it must have been like for the American intelligence community as it weaved through the complex web of information that led to the mission to kill the head of al-Qaeda.
Boom! Sprinkled through the narrative are a couple of rather surprising bomb scenes. These happen completely out of the blue, unexpected, just when the mood of the film is shifting down a bit to try to humanize the characters. BOOM! Destruction and chaos, death and agony is suddenly everywhere. Just as it was experienced in the actual bombings the movie is portraying. As with the torture scenes, the bomb scenes are effective and powerful, hooking the viewer and investing us further in this bizarre but true story.
I am very impressed with how Bigelow handles all these details. But, perhaps the best part of the film is when it shifts from an international intelligence investigation into mission-mode presented pretty much real-time in the final portion of the film. There is no musical score used. There is very little in the way of cheesy suspenseful gimmicks. The actual SEAL Team mission plays out as it apparently happened with little, if any, embellishment. These guys go in with purpose and fearless discipline. The unexpected happens when one of the two stealth choppers crashes inside the compound. The chopper must be blown-up. But that only happens after bin Laden's safe house (located less than one mile from Pakistan's most prestigious military academy - how they could possibly not have known who the occupant was is beyond me, but that's another story) has been entered and several occupants, including bin Laden, are killed.
It is interesting that Bigelow chose not to show us bin Laden directly. We see the strands of his beard but otherwise he is shot completely off-center. The only time we see his full face is a thumbnail sized image in a pull-back shot of the digital viewer on a camera one of the SEALs use to photo the body immediately after it is killed. Clearly, the director chose not to depict the target of the film as a trophy. It is merely confirmation of the success of the mission.
I saw the film at a matinee yesterday with my daughter. Although she does not know who Bigelow is, she was a big fan of the director's prior movie, The Hurt Locker. She has watched that film several times. Zero Dark Thirty is in the same style. Lots of hand-held camera shots. Smart-ass dialog. Minimal but powerful action. The viewer has to pay attention to keep up. Although this time there is a strong female lead character and a grander story being told. At any rate, we came out of the theater with her questioning whether the kill mission was accurate or not. "It was too easy," she said. There wasn't enough straight-up gun fighting for her. It did not offer any of the excitement of a traditional Hollywood combat scene.
I explained that the story was in the finding of bin Laden. The actual killing of him was a fairly routine affair by covert standards. To her credit, Bigelow does not make anything more of the search for bin Laden and our subsequent killing of him than actually occurred. The story is sensational enough. By giving the audience a character like Maya, we are properly invested in a film that races to tell a very complex story and allows us to experience a bit of what it was like to conduct the search and to accomplish the killing.
While I would not apply the overused words like "stunning" or "riveting" to the film, it is powerful and effective. The experience of Zero Dark Thirty makes it seem like a shorter film than its actual length suggests. Time flies when you properly wrapped-up in the telling of any great story. This is a job well done. I give this film an 8 for its ability to saturate you with its drama and hold you there right up to final scene; in which Maya is going home, the lone passenger on a large military transport plane. Since she is CIA the flight crew knows nothing about her. One of them greets her with "You can sit anywhere you like. You must be somebody important. Where do you want to go?" Maya does not answer. Instead she just sits, leans back in the huge transport bay and, for the first time in the film, she cries.
Zero Dark Thirty was number one at the box office for its opening weekend, taking in about $24 million. Many members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences are calling for a boycott of the film for Oscar consideration. These self-righteous hypocrites are supposedly all for free-speech until they don't necessarily like the delivery.
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