Sunday, January 20, 2013

"Zero Dark Thirty"

I suppose it's impossible to write about "Zero Dark Thirty" without acknowledging the politics that have dominated the discussion about the movie, so I might as well get that out of the way first.

Of course, there's the question of torture.  Does the movie glorify torture?  Does the movie tell a false story with respect to how it links torture (and the information gleaned from it) with finding Osama bin Laden? 

Then there's the question of Hollywood politics.  Was Kathryn Bigelow's Oscar snub due to the perception of Hollywood that she made her movie with the full cooperation of the C.I.A. and/or some other arm of the U.S. government? 

The whole thing strikes me as a little ridiculous, so here are a few personal observations.

1. I was expecting the torture scenes to be much worse than they turned out to be.  More than one of the scenes in "Django Unchained" made me squirm in my seat much worse than anything in "Zero Dark Thirty."  And the line between torture and the successful Bin Laden operation is somewhere between tenuous and indirect.  Information is obtained, but if I followed the narrative correctly, it was not always correct, and certainly not always helpful.  So I'm not sure how that translates into a glorification of torture.

2. One never knows what evil lurks in the minds of Oscar voters, but it is without question a travesty that Bigelow did not receive an Oscar nomination for her direction.  You can reasonably criticize the film's character development and even screenplay, but you simply can't criticize the direction, which is masterful.

And I'm no apologist for any of the foreign policy mistakes the U.S. has made during my lifetime, and I've read "Endless Enemies" so I know that many of the situations in which we've found ourselves on the world front resulted almost entirely from previous mistakes or errors in judgment that we made.   However, none of that stopped me from "rooting" for our side during the movie.

So with all that out of the way, I'll just come right out and say that "Zero Dark Thirty" is a magnificent movie, one that will likely one day come to be regarded as a masterpiece.  It's no small trick to construct a movie around an already known outcome and maintain the tension throughout, but Bigelow manages it while barely breaking a sweat.  Part of the reason for this is that the viewer knows how much is at stake, so even though the movie is "about" the Bin Laden operation, it always feel as if it's focused on something much bigger - nothing less than a war about a way of life.

Jessica Chastain was the perfect choice to play Maya, the intrepid CIA analyst who slowly but surely - through mind-numbing hours of data collections, and soul-numbing moments of "enhanced interrogation" - puts together the information she needs to pinpoint the location of Bin Laden.  Slight in physical appearance, she nonetheless is a force to be reckoned with - and it's no small matter that it is her larger and tougher colleague who ends up back in the States, weary of it all.  In a way, she and her colleagues are almost like the flight crew technicians in "Apollo 13" - not glamorous, but determined and with talents that from the outside are easy for some to miss.

But the entire cast is great - Kyle Chandler as the world weary station chief,  Mark Strong as the middle/upper level manager overseeing the operation against Bin Laden, Jennifer Ehle as Maya's tough-as-nails colleague and friend, Joel Edgerton and Chris Pratt (!) as the badass leaders of the Navy Seal team that conducts the operation, even James Gandolfini as "the Director" - and all of them sprinkle their performances with a level of urgency that suits perfectly the material that screenwriter Mark Boal has given them to work with.

And a special shout-out to the movie's final 45 minutes -which depicts the actual operation itself.  This is film-making of the highest order, and when we saw it, the theater was so quiet that you could hear your own heart beating (well, at least I could).  Those scenes reach a level of intensity that have rarely been matched, but they would mean less if the almost 2 hours that preceded them hadn't set the stage so effectively.

Great, great stuff.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I saw the movie tonight .... I was glad to see that the most important poignant part.of the movie was "is Bin Laden in that building or not"! And the answers given by the upper crust analysts.....65 percent sure....and Maya says...with conviction 100 percent sure. As a retired intelligence analyst it portrays the true character of intelligence ..... It's just information that you sell to those that make decisions....they can buy it or ignore their peril.