Review: Zero Dark Thirty

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Zero Dark Thirty is an outstanding film, a great example of how editing, sound, music and crisp performances can keep eyes and ears glued to a screen. The film’s climax, a fifteen-minute or so scene that shows the raid by Navy SEALS on Usama Bin Ladin’s compound, is one of the best action scenes I’ve seen, period. This is consummate filmmaking by director Kathryn Bigelow.

That being said, the film takes some warming up to. The first half hour or so would probably give Dick Cheney a hard-on. After a sound-only representation of 9/11 (a brilliant choice–we didn’t need to see another shot of a plane crashing into the World Trade Center) the film covers the manhunt for Bin Laden, the mastermind behind the attacks, from that day to May 1, 2011, when he is taken out. This begins with the interrogation of detainees at CIA black sites, led by an agent known only as Dan (Jason Clarke).

These detainees are treated very harshly, including being beaten, tied to the ceiling, put into small boxes, and most controversially, being water boarded. Observing the torture is Maya (Jessica Chastain), a CIA agent who realizes that since Bin Laden is not connected to the grid–he does not use phones or Internet–he must use couriers. If the CIA can find a courier, they can find Bin Laden.

The controversy surrounding the film has nothing to do with the quality of the film, but this portion is extremely difficult to sit through. When Barack Obama takes office, the detainee program ends, but Chastain has a tip–a man known as Abu Ahmed, a courier for Bin Laden. Unfortunately, no one seems to know his real name or if he is dead or alive.

Bigelow takes Mark Boal’s extremely dense but extremely coherent script and makes a spellbinding procedural. As the years roll by, Chastain does not let go, even in the face of resistance from her station chief (Kyle Chandler). She survives a bombing and being shot at. Finally Ahmed is found, and he lives in a large compound in Abbottobad, Pakistan. Chastain observes that an unidentified male lives in that compound, and never comes out. Like Sherlock Holmes did in the case of the dog that didn’t bark, Chastain uses deduction to reason that absence of information is all the evidence she needs.

This is taken to the CIA director (James Gandolfini, obviously playing Leon Panetta). With only 60 percent assurance from other government members, the attack is green-lit.

That’s the story, but the film succeeds not because of any heroics–that’s gravy. What makes Zero Dark Thirty work is the craft of the film. There are many names to congratulate, from Alexander Desplat’s music to Paul N.J. Ottosson’s sound editing. And I will not soon forget the climax, when stealth helicopters fly nearly noiselessly (and without lights) over the dark mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan. In a way, I was reminded of the helicopter attack in Apocalypse Now, but while that scene was brilliant because of its sound and fury, this one is the opposite–sleek and silent.

Then, once the SEALS have landed, Bigelow shoots it as if we were there–with night-vision lenses–as they move from door to door, efficiently killing and making their way to the target. Bigelow and her editors, Dylan Tichenor and William Goldenberg, make a great choice here. They do not cut away to others waiting back at the base, anxiously. Instead they stay with the SEAL team all the way through, and thus do not interrupt the tension by hackneyed use of closeups.

The denouement of the film, when Chastain has realized her entire career goal, is an incredibly touching end to a fiercely visceral film. Zero Dark Thirty is worthy of all its Oscar nominations, and should have had more, including Bigelow, Desplat, and cinematographer Greig Fraser. It’s another example that shows 2012 is a pretty damn good year for movies.

My grade for Zero Dark Thirty: A.

About Jackrabbit Slim

Location: Vegas, Baby! I’m much older than the other whippersnappers here, a baby boomer. I tend to be more snobbish about film, disdaining a lot of the multiplex fare for “cinema.” My favorite films: Woody Allen’s oeuvre (up until about 1990), The Godfather, The Graduate, A Hard Day’s Night, Pulp Fiction. Politics: Well, George McGovern was my political hero. I’m also a prickly atheist. Occupation: Poised to be an English teacher in Las Vegas. For many years I was an editor at Penthouse Magazine. My role on this blog seems to be writing lots of reviews and being the resident Oscar maven.

4 responses »

  1. Dylan Tichenor is one of our best editors. From Boogie Nights to the fantastic editing of Unbreakable and The Royal Tennenbaums and of course There Will Be Blood and more. Love his work.

  2. After seeing it, what are your thoughts on the torture issue JS? Would you say the film implicity or explicity condones the use of it, or is that an unfair allegation that has been been widely discussed?

    It’s interesting how some people within Hollywood have come out against the film on this basis, including veteran actor Dave Clennon and apparently well-known actors like Martin Sheen & Ed Asner.

  3. It was tough to watch the scenes objectively, because I knew about the protest before I saw it. In situations like this, I try to maintain the stance that it’s “only a movie,” not a documentary. I haven’t really followed all of it (I know Bigelow responded, but I don’t know what she said), but I found the sequences hard to watch, both because they are well done in an excruciating manner, but because I hate to think that the U.S. got any information through torture. But as you can see by my review, it doesn’t diminish my appreciation of the movie.

  4. Just got back from this, and I found it pretty underwhelming. In retrospect, it plays as if the filmmakers really wanted to portray the raid on screen, and had trouble filling out the rest of the movie around it.

    I keep reading what a tight procedural it is, but to me it’s pretty aimless and not all that interesting. There’s nothing to the story that we couldn’t have more or less guessed in general terms – there’s nothing all that exceptional, in procedural terms, to what they do except for the torture. Perhaps that’s why that angle is overplayed for no discrenible reason except for the sensationalism of it (quick quiz: what exactly did the interrogators learn during the torture sessions that was integral to finding UBL? Tough to say, isn’t it?).

    Otherwise, I felt like the filmmakers themselves were occasionally bored, so we get random action scenes that are vaguely implausible on their own but really hard to take cumulatively. In particular, the compound bombing is absurdly stupid, even more so if it happened in real life in any way resembling the way it does in the movie.

    Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the movie is how ridiculously incompetent the CIA looks, which I suppose is inevitable given the CIA’s long dubious record of fail over the years. I mean, Maya’s insight about the courier isn’t exactly radical or even far-fetched, but nonetheless she takes years to get any traction within the organization and faces skepticism up to the end. And for all the focus everyone supposedly has about stopping the next attack, there’s never much reason to think that they’re successful at even that.

    But, I don’t think Bigelow is a thoughtful enough filmmaker to make much of this aspect of the script, and so we get a rather unimaginative story about the One True Hero who made it happen and an extremely simple-minded portrayal of the politics of the whole situation. Bigelow has action chops, and I agree that the climactic raid is extremely well done (even if it does jarringly take the story out of its erstwhile protagonist’s hands), and Chastain is excellent.

    But taken as a whole I think it’s a very dull-witted movie.

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