Saturday, March 23, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty, a review

I watched Zero Dark Thirty a few months ago, albeit in scraps and pieces. Having been somewhat removed from the controversy that the film generated, I was able to reflect a bit last night when I bought the flick and enjoyed it with my girlfriend.

So, what did I think of the "greatest manhunt in history?"


The film's chilling opening set the tone for the rest of the film; much like The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty revels in quiet terror and the unknown. Technically, this is achieved b y superbly dragging out sequences waiting for the unexpected. In light of a potential terrorist bombing, my girlfriend kept mutter, "something is going to happen." Neither of us anticipated what that something would be, but needless to say i didn't notice the 150 plus minutes of cinematic tension pass.

Cinematically, the film is stellar. The style and cinematography is a blend of Tony Scott (rest in peace) and The Hurt Locker with a dash of Bourne. Though handheld, it maintains a sense of urgency that doesn't bring forth headaches. Which is a positive thing in my estimation.

The editing is surprisingly crisp, keeping the pace moving and it rarely lags. Even in character moments (there are few but they are potent) the film reveals little by little so that the horrific journey pays off in increments. In some ways, we learn as much (or less) than Maya, who is the one supposed to be the active one.

We question everything with her, second guess the abnormal techniques and sigh when it finally ends.


Some have criticized the film on the grounds that there isn't much story. I would strongly disagree, because this itself is a story we lived and maybe that's why we are missing the mark. This story is fragmented and scattered simply because that is the awful reality of this journey. Jessica Chastain plays this perfectly, giving us hints of loneliness in between coffee breaks and interrogation sequences that would curl the toes of even the most die-hard Saw fans.

The acting is uniformly superb, with Mark Strong adding gravity simply by showing up. Jason Clarke of Brotherhood fame is a revelation. I haven't seen him in much, but what he did with an already complex character was nothing besides stellar. His little moments while feeding a monkey and enjoying himself makes one wonder about the link between biology and the effects of sticking pins and waterlogged rags into the faces of those that bleed the same color as him.

The final 40 minutes are the siege of Bin Laden's fortress, and it is the most toned down non-Michael Bay action sequences I've ever witnessed. The screams of pedestrians and the lack of pyrotechnics added to the grave reality that "justice" was being served. More on that below.


It is difficult to evaluate the film in light of it's controversy, as I feel compelled to to people they've gotten it wrong. But, in sitting here at my laptop and thinking about the human effects that this war was wrought, its difficult to see how this couldn't be anything less than controversial.

But, in sitting here, I didn't get any sense of it. The claims about "torture" struck me as odd, not in that torture is unethical, but that nothing came from it. Given time, I'm certain Jason Clarke could convince me to change genders and banter about in a yellow sun dress. I simply don't think we are in any position to think about whether or not the film is correct to suggest that we gained anything from torture.

What, instead, the film asks is how does the summation of all things effect us, as detached and personal? I remember where I was on the morning of September 11, and I remember where I was when Bin Laden was announced dead. The parallel couldn't be sharper:

We were weeping and enraged on September 11, and our enemies were cheering and firing guns into the air. On May 2, 2011, we were cheering and setting off bottle rockets while our enemies were infuriated. I'm simply not sure what to make of the ethical dilemmas the audience was put into. The human tendency to ignore empathy is clearly present, but the revulsion one feels at the expense of humanity is justified.


All in all, Zero Dark Thirty is an accomplishment. The narrative is brisk and compact, the technical dimensions are strongly covered and the themes are deeply moral and designed to elicit conversation and debate. Simply put, I think the film was seriously overlooked during awards season.

Funny thing, the film begins and ends with weeping. Maybe taking a moment to reflect on that is what one really needs.

4.5 stars out of 5.


1 comment:

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