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Zero Dark Thirty

zero dark thirty


“Zero Dark Thirty” is most likely the most important movie of 2012, though I’m not convinced it’s the best.

The capture and killing of Osama Bin Laden (probably) brings to a conclusion an era in American history that started on September 11, 2001. It could be — and I’m crossing my fingers here – that the War on Terror is finally over. This war has defined who we are as Americans more than anything else for the past decade. If you are American, you owe it to yourself to watch this film, just to understand and reflect upon what it has been like to live through these last few years. The only other movie I would say that about is “United 93,” and the two would make a powerful, emotionally exhausting double feature.

Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal have created a movie that meticulously recreates the hunt for Osama Bin Laden to its end. In it, they capture the hurt and desperation at the beginning of the hunt, the growing feeling that we were losing the war for several years, and finally the breakthrough that led to the death of America’s number one enemy.

The difference between “Zero Dark Thirty” and “United 93” are significant, however. “United 93” had a natural unity of time and place, as well as clearly defined heroes and villains. “Zero Dark Thirty” takes place over the course of a decade in a variety of locations and cultures. Bigelow’s approach is journalistic to the point of obsession; she seems extremely unwilling to simplify the story or combine real life people into composite characters or take any of the shortcuts filmmakers usually take when trying to bring an overwhelmingly complicated story to the screen. The result is an extremely complicated and often confusing movie. I’ve seen it twice now and I’m still not sure who all the characters are or why they matter (navigating government bureaucracy is just as difficult as navigating Middle Eastern terrorist networks.) Nothing is very clear, and that’s frustrating.

For instance, there has been an ocean of ink spilled over the torture scenes in “Zero Dark Thirty.” Do they glorify torture? Do they condemn it? Do they simply portray it? Was torture an instrumental part of tracking down Bin Laden, or are the scenes in the movie to show that torture produced almost nothing useful? An argument can be (and has been) made in either direction, because the film refuses to make its own argument. Personally, I find that frustrating. But some find it admirable, and I can understand that point of view, too.

Bigelow makes a number of questionable and fascinating choices in “Zero Dark Thirty,” which makes it a movie more fun to discuss than to watch. I’ll focus on two: one I think was a mistake and one I think was brilliant.

First, the mistake: casting Jessica Chastain as the lead. She plays the CIA operative in charge of tracking down Bin Laden, a tough and persistent woman who refuses to give up or back down. I like Chastain as an actress, and she’s certainly been the flavor of the month lately, but she’s just wrong for this part. She’s not tough enough. Now, Jessica Chastain may be the toughest cookie in Hollywood for all I know, but cinema is all about what’s on the screen, and she just doesn’t look tough. She’s all grace and glow; she looks delicate and gentle. She was perfectly cast Terrence Malick’s “Tree of Life.” This role is almost perfectly opposite that one. We need a woman who looks like she knows how to get things done in a man’s world. There’s one scene where she drops an F-bomb into the middle of a conversation to assert how aggressive she is, and it’s the worst scene in the movie. I don’t think I’m being sexist. I spent most of the movie marveling at how out of place she looked, and imagining other actresses in the role. I think Anna Kendrick could’ve nailed it, or Meryl Streep. Vera Farmiga could do it. Chastain couldn’t.

But Bigelow absolutely nails perhaps the most difficult and important sequence in the move: the storming of Bin Laden’s compound. The whole sequence is masterfully, brillianlty staged. It is both intense and graceful, smooth, tense and exciting but gritty and realistic. It’s an action sequence that doesn’t budge an inch in the Michael Bay direction; nothing is glamorized. It’s not only the best sequence in the movie, it’s the best sequence in a movie this year. To be honest, this sequence is so good, and because it comes at the end, it probably makes people forget what a drudge the rest of the film was. Without this sequence, “Zero Dark Thirty” is an important but barely watchable film, the kind that gets screened in high school history classes and hardly anywhere else.

Last year the trend in movies was nostalgia. This year, oddly, it appears to be drudge. “Zero Dark Thirty” joins “The Master” in my mind as movies that are well-made but not particularly entertaining or easy to watch. If you ask 10 critics for their top 5 movies of 2012, both of these will be on 9 of those lists. Personally, I wonder what both of these movies are going to look like in 5 or 10 years time. Especially this one, which is such a product of its time. When things have calmed down a little around here, when the death of Bin Laden isn’t such an emotionally charged subject, will we realize that this film has one really great sequence, but aside from that, is terribly overrated? Only time will tell.

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