Sunday, January 6, 2013

Review: "Zero Dark Thirty"

Kathryn Bigelow made history in 2009 when she won Best Picture and Best Director for the impeccably-paced The Hurt Locker. Being the first woman to win a director's highest prize, expectations were nonetheless sky high for her follow-up effort. Zero Dark Thirty is Bigelow's ninth film, and she returns to familiar territory with a film about the American military in the Middle East from Oscar-winning screen writer Mark Boal (Best Original Screenplay winner for The Hurt Locker, and apparent front-runner for the prize this year). When it was announced that Bigelow and Boal were reteaming for a story based on the hunt for Osama bin Laden, I had more than a few reservations. I anticipated a film full of pro-American propaganda and the ensuing news-world hoopla about bin Laden's death, yet Zero Dark Thirty is entirely different. It is the story of one woman's decade-long search for the man responsible for the 9/11 attacks, with a thoroughly transcendent performance from Jessica Chastain. If Chastain's performances in The Tree of Life, The Help or Coriolanius (all released in 2011, the so-called Year of Chastain) did little to convince you of her amazing range as an actree, then I urge you to read Roger Ebert's review of the film, where he compares Jessica Chastain to the immaculate Meryl Streep. Zero Dark Thirty, a military reference to thirty minutes past midnight, has been under a cloud of controversy prior to its major release date of January 11. Mark Bowden, contributing writer for The Atlantic, responds to the idea that Zero Dark Thirty is pro-torture in a very though provoking article (though I would urge you to read it only after seeing the film). To make matters worse for the film's producers (including Bigelow and Boal) and Sony (whose subsidiary, Columbia Pictures produced the film), it was reported this week that the U.S. Senate will be investigating the CIA intelligence officers who gave information to Boal for his screenplay. An interesting development, as the film begins with the statement The Following motion picture is based on first hand accounts of actual events. For the majority of the film, my heart was racing, despite knowing how the film was going to end. The story is not about how Osama bin Laden died, but more about how one woman's undying belief ultimately lead to that moment. Jessica Chastain's performance is beyond words, and her character development is mesmerizing to watch. Whoever decided it was necessary to have her character remain silent through the film's trailer is a genius. Zero Dark Thirty is a tremendously well written and directed film about the manhunt for Osama bin Laden, and Kathryn Bigelow's greatest success in her post-Oscar follow up is the casting of Jessica Chastain, who could very well win an award for her performance.

Encompassing an eight year period, starting in 2003, Maya (Chastain) is a young CIA intelligence officer who has spent the bulk of her career focusing on al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. In 2003, Maya is reassigned to Pakistan, to work with Dan (Jason Clarke), and his team, including Jack (Harold Perrineau) and Jessica (Jennifer Ehle). Maya often accompanies Dan to a CIA black site where he interrogates a prisoner named Ammar, who has links to Saudi Arabian terrorists. She eventually discovers that a man using the alias Abu Ahmed may be the key to finally discovering bin Laden's whereabouts.

Zero Dark Thirty is a very different film from The Hurt Locker, but both are fast-paced films running on adrenaline. At over two and a half hours, Zero Dark Thirty does not feel as long as it is. The film is able to move through its narrative (an eight year time frame) with a considerable amount of ease. I was hooked from the very beginning, when the attacks of September 11, 2011 are presented aurally, set against a completely black screen. Kathryn Bigelow is a confident director and she uses her ample skills to keep the tension high throughout the film. Even when Maya is blocked by her station chief (played by Kyle Chandler) is Islamabad, and when her efforts are halted by government officials (including Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta (played by James Gandolfini)), the story flows easily. Credit must also be given to the Alexandre Desplat, who composed the score of the film. Unfortunately, I am not sure how many people will be able to see the film. The Hurt Locker only grossed $17 million in North America (50 million worldwide) and is the lowest grossing Oscar-winner ever. Hopefully the controversies surrounding the film and acclaim for Chastain's performance will drive more people to see it. Zero Dark Thirty is not my favourite film of 2012, but it is in my top ten.

My rating: 4 stars out of 4.


  1. Really?! 4 out of 4? Hmmm, I may need to see this sooner than planned...

  2. Watch it! Jessica Chastain (my favourite part of The Help!) is sensational.