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Zero Dark Thirty / **** (R)

Posted Tuesday, January 15, 2013, at 8:12 PM

(Photo)
Oscar nominated for Best Leading Actress, Jessica Chastain leads the hunt for Osama Bin Laden in Kathryn Bigelow's new film "Zero Dark Thirty".
Columbia Pictures presents a film directed by Kathryn Bigelow. Written by Mark Boal. Running time: 157 min. Rated R (for strong violence including brutal disturbing images, and for language).

The movie opens in darkness. Only a title card that states "September 11, 2001" appears on screen and is gone again. We hear air traffic control chatter from that fateful day. Then we hear a 911 dispatch call from a victim inside the World Trade Center. Then more and more audio layers of actual emergency communication from that day are piped in from different speakers throughout the auditorium. It bounces around the theater. This is the film's rising incident--the motivation for everything else to come. There is a price for killing over 3000 innocent people.

The action of the movie opens two years later in Pakistan. A man and hooded guards walk into a barren warehouse where a prisoner, who has obviously been beaten, awaits. The wily looking man, sporting a beard and unruly hair, wants contact information on top-level Al Qaeda operatives from the prisoner. He makes it clear that it won't be easy if the prisoner isn't truthful. He will be broken. The man and his guards leave again. One of the guards removes their hood to reveal that she is a red-haired woman in a suit. This is the region's newly arrived CIA team member. She will be known only as Maya.

Kathryn Bigelow's Oscar nominated new movie "Zero Dark Thirty" isn't some confession about the practices of the CIA. It isn't a character study of what it takes to get the job done. It isn't some sort of exposé about the effectiveness of torture. It isn't even a guide on how we go about catching terrorists. It is a procedural on one specific case that took the CIA almost ten years to crack. This is how we found and assassinated the biggest threat against the United States and other countries in recent decades, the leader of the Al Qaeda terrorist network Osama Bin Laden.

Bigelow is no stranger to war and violence. She became the first woman to win an Oscar for Best Direction for her work on the movie "The Hurt Locker" about a bomb disposal expert in the Iraq War. "Zero Dark Thirty" is a very different war film than that one. "The Hurt Locker" was an intimate portrait of what it takes to perform one of the most dangerous jobs in modern warfare. "Zero Dark Thirty" tells the story of a different war all together. This war doesn't concern itself with soldiers or personal motivation. The front lines aren't inhabited by men and women of different backgrounds who've all put on a uniform to do their duty for their country. This war is lead by intelligent CIA operatives who have a specialized skill set to solve puzzles and get answers. The cost of the information that they gather doesn't enter their minds, only their need for the information.

Maya isn't portrayed as a typical heroine. The filmmakers don't give us those typical scenes of the newbie settling in. You can see from Jessica Chastain's nuanced performance that she is initially disturbed by the torture practices she witnesses, but she also has fierce determination to do her job. There aren't any of the expected clashes of personality, although it is apparent that her team harbors vastly different personalities and methods for achieving their goals. Jennifer Ehle ("Contagion") plays the only other female agent on the team with the same tough as nails approach until one of her leads comes in, then she has trouble containing her excitement.

The film has been widely criticized for two things. The first is a lack of character development. This is an intentional omission that is well explained by Mark Boal's subtly brilliant screenplay. He gives us no background on Maya beyond the fact that this is her first field assignment, she did not request the post, and the CIA recruited her right out of high school. The subject of her personal life is brought up in a conversation with Ehle's character. Maya has no answers for her. In a late story conversation with the CIA Director, who is given no name, he asks Maya why she was recruited right out of high school. She says that even if she knew that, she couldn't divulge that information to him or anybody. That's the point. It's all classified. One of the reasons it's classified is that once they work for the CIA doing what they do, nothing else matters but what they do. They aren't characters. They aren't people. They are tools for the CIA to use in a war for their country. Everything else is junk that isn't necessary to the story or their mission.

The second issue has brought a good deal of controversy about the film. The movie depicts torture as a viable form of obtaining useful intelligence. The kinder gentler American image espoused by the Obama administration has promoted the idea that torture will only lead prisoners to divulge anything, the truth or not. The fact is torture was used to obtain a great deal of intelligence before the current administration cracked down on it. It's never as simple as we waterboard you and you give up everything we want. This movie understands that. What these agents are hired to do is to get information and sift through it to find the truth of what they are seeking.

Bigelow's hard-edged directing and the editing team show this as a step by often frustrating step process. Her camera doesn't judge the right or wrong of it. She only shows what steps are taken. After the Obama administration changes CIA policy on obtaining its intelligence, these agents find other ways to track their targets and do their jobs. Bigelow's direction is efficient in portraying their process and doesn't stop to condone or criticize it.

After spending the last half-hour of the film giving us the familiar elements of the siege on OBL's Pakistani mansion, Bigelow finally provides the only emotional outburst of the film. Chastain, who was previously nominated for an Oscar for a much different character in last year's "The Help", finally allows her emotions to slip once her mission is done. It lets the audience off the hook as we've spent much of the film wondering how someone can devote ten years of their life to hunting down a person and killing him without ever getting personal. I believe it is because that is what the job requires. Until those last moments every outburst of anger she displays throughout the story only served the job. This is the only moment that is hers.

"Zero Dark Thirty" may not be the most entertaining movie of the year. It is intense and immensely intriguing. It may leave you with a sense of yearning for more. "Argo" is another CIA-based film that is more satisfying in terms of expectations. "Zero Dark Thirty" is possibly the bravest film of the year, though. It takes the conventions of movie storytelling and throws them out the window to tell its very specific story in the stark terms in which the people entrusted to create the history of it played it out. It is a procedural that is all procedural and nothing else as it must be with the goals at stake. "Zero Dark Thirty" is the best film of 2012.

"Zero Dark Thirty" is currently playing at Galaxy Cinema in Sedalia.

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ANDREW D. WELLS
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Andrew is a professionally trained actor and stage director. He was a reporter for the daily newspaper The Marshall Democrat News. He has been critiquing film since Mr. Lucas released the first of his "Star Wars" prequels in 1999. His reviews can also be seen at his blog site.
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