Review by The Isolated Moviegoer:
The year’s best film is hiding somewhere within Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, and not behind all that much camouflage. Managing to exceed lofty expectations, The Hurt Locker director’s riveting look at the decade-long CIA hunt for Osama bin Laden is held back only by its self-importance, dressing up an otherwise stellar information adventure with Hollywood labels and narcissistic movie moments.
Propelled by Jessica Chastain’s magnetic turn as intelligence officer Maya, the film traces her oft-tested resilience in pursuing the elusive al-Qaeda leader. Setting the stage with bleak audio from 9/11 victims against a black screen, Bigelow gets right to the U.S. response at a veiled CIA location where operative Dan (Jason Clarke) interrogates Ammar (Reda Kateb) on his terrorism ties. As a green but determined Maya looks on from a corner, Dan employs tactics that, while undoubtably brutal, never quite feel exploitative in their cinematic depiction. Though the combined sessions (roughly comprising the film’s opening half hour) just barely outstay their welcome, the methods produce the name Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, a courier Ammar insists has direct access to bin Laden.
Lead in hand, Zero Dark Thirty embarks on a snappy subsequent two hours that earns the film a spot among such elite investigative thrillers as All The President’s Men and Zodiac. Throughout Maya’s journey, information is king, and each nugget pertaining to al-Kuwaiti’s whereabouts, be it genuine or misleading, is obtained with white-knuckle intrigue. Mark Boal’s taut but detailed script encourages the intel to flow with natural energy and is aided by nimble editing that refuses to impede progress.
Likewise bringing their best is the film’s prestige ensemble. Effortlessly woven in as the years and locations pile up, the likes of Kyle Chandler’s stubborn Bush-era station chief, Jennifer Ehle’s rival officer-turned-ally, and Edgar Ramirez’s gutsy field op prod Maya’s obsession in their own unique ways. Holding her own with these parties as bin Laden’s location become somewhat less murky, she’s summoned to Washington and meets her match in the film’s Leon Panetta stand-in (James Gandolfini). A commanding presence whose every word slices like the sharpest of razors, the CIA Director holds the key to Maya’s quest, and when the two square off, the room damn near combusts.
With all these assets, it’s somewhat shocking that Zero Dark Thirty feels the need to doctor its winning formula with multiple unnecessary Hollywood moments. After nearly half the film has elapsed, rolling along at a clip all its own, Bigelow suddenly throws in expository title cards such as “Human Error” and “The Canaries,” phrases that are then uttered by characters to ensure that each message has been received. In addition to these disrupters, while Maya & Co. draw closer to their goal, the film’s intelligent approach gives way to a handful of less imaginative scenes. As she writes the number of days of inactivity on her supervisor’s window or mouths off to the Director with faux-showstopping bravado, the film momentarily loses its steam. Considering the otherwise consistent level of professionalism surrounding these glaring missteps, however, footing is regained in no time.
After such intelligent build-up, peppered with just the right amount of explosions, the saga culminates with Seal Team Six’s inevitable yet breathless raid of bin Laden’s compound. Bigelow’s expert action staging is thrilling by itself, but each second on the grounds achieves an even greater importance after experiencing the immense time and lives sacrificed to reach that point.
Indeed, it is hers and Boal’s thoughtful, fair handling of the complex big picture and its components that makes Zero Dark Thirty more than merely an adrenaline rush. By daring to present torture as a cruel but ultimately effective method, the duo leave its justification up to interpretation, just as they turn the mirror on post-9/11 society’s unfortunate but understandable bloodlust for one man’s death. None of these issues have easy answers, and through refusing to provide any, the filmmakers do right by a troublesome decade, capturing its defining characteristics with commendable honesty and respect. For these painstaking efforts, their passion project is one that seems destined for canonization down the line. Inability to get out of its own way or not, it’s a true achievement and a worthy icon of a generation still gripped in its events’ aftermath.
Rated R for strong violence including brutal disturbing images, and for language.
Zero Dark Thirty is currently playing at the Carolina Cinemas on Hendersonville Rd.
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