Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty

Zero Dark Thirty, a terse and pulsating enactment of the hunt for Osama bin Ladin, comes from the Academy Award winning team of The Hurt Locker-- director Kathryn Bigelow and scribe Mark Boal.  After the triumph of the little movie that could (and did, waging a mighty and gripping sword that sparked a media spitfire in its David vs. Goliath side-story in its defeat of the megalithic Avatar to claim its top statues) comes an even more unnerving and ambitious film, one of such magnitude it chronicles on the most sensational of American stories of all time.  Made with an intimacy, intelligence and swirling, often searing, sense of truth, Zero Dark Thirty marks one of the most significant and bold endeavors that mainstream Hollywood has tackled since the heady, director driven days of 1970s.  As Bigelow swerves through requisite bits of mission protocol and the daily chilliness of the CIA agents and operatives working-- anguishing and obsessing-- what marks Zero Dark Thirty is a marvel of cinematic journalism.  What may or may not amount to one-hundred percent accuracy feels riveting, achingly researched and accurate in tone of the mindsets of the individuals pursuant of the greatest manhunt in history.  And as in The Hurt Locker, Bigelow and Boal leave the political grandstanding at bay, focusing on the task, the mission, the goal without sermonizing, leaving its audience enthralled, puzzled, mystified by unquestionable intelligence and craft, moved by the audacious efforts of the nameless, faceless people working tirelessly without a safety net for American security and justice, and perhaps a bit removed, not from the magnificent detailing but the service of procedure.

The first sequence of Zero Dark Thirty, years before the eventual capture of bin Laden in May of 2011, is one of the, perhaps now infamous torture scenes.  A brutish agent is in a game of good cop/bad cop with a young man in pursuit of answers that he's not receiving.  The sequence itself is shot with a nearly disconnected nonchalance-- perhaps similar to the feeling of a tough guy agent whose well practiced in the methods of such, including waterboarding.  Bigelow and Boal are neither indulgent nor gratuitous in the showcase, and like everything else in the film, leave the audience to ponder for themselves the moral consequences.  The agent, Dan, played by Jason Clarke, who we later learn is quite well practiced in such methods of inquiry is accompanied by a masked operative, who in a neat bit of subversion is named Maya, and played with a strong fury and innately stern femininity by Jessica Chastain.  The provocative nature of torture devices, a clear and hot blooded issue that cements the film a certain controversy in the light of various statements made by well-positioned senators adds a layer of timely intrigue to Zero Dark Thirty, but the meaning behind them, as service to the film itself, prove a remarkable testament to Bigelow and Boal, who film the sequences with a rawness, but nearly essential probing in the nature of politics and safety.  To say the least, none of which are sensed as glamorous nor needlessly violent for the sake of violence itself.

The greatest measure of Zero Dark Thirty is that Maya is the guiding light and glue of the mission, and the determined and thrillingly mighty performance by Chastain gives the film its deepest human connection.  On the onset, the seemingly very girly and nearly fragile actress, best known for the massive heap of films that a lit her name in 2011, namely The Tree of Life and her Oscar-nominated work in The Help.  Maya is a totally different creation altogether-- a strong, sterling piece of work, one that would have likely dumbfounded by the mightiest and bravest of soldiers, male or female, Chastain maintains a poise and a pose-- often all at once-- as the films treks her obsession with not just finding bin Ladin, but more importantly, being right.  Given nary a backstory, nor a flicker of an outer life-- the most significant bit of information we learn from Maya herself is that she's single, and likely has no friends-- matters not, as Maya, constantly living in the shadows of the world, and in consistent danger and her obsession, determination and guile are all that really matter.  While Chastain is front and center, she's surrounded by an ace and immense cast of supporting players, some of whom played by familiar faces (James Gandolfini, Kyle Chandler, Joel Edgerton, Edgar Ramariez, Mark Strong and many more provide vital pop-ins, all largely unsung for the meaning of the work) in an ensemble cast that boasts bountifully.  But it's Chastain that draws us in, as she blows through Zero Dark Thirty imbuing Maya with a smartest person in the room bravado, but in her case, she not just sells it, but justifies it, even in a few rabble-rousing lines of dialogue that might have proved an error or hooky from someone who hadn't earned audience plaudits, but respect as well.  Another female CIA agent who works closely with Maya is Jessica, played with an amiable and delightful charm by Jennifer Ehle, who becomes central in one of the films most chilling and devastating scenes.  It's a credit to the actors that Zero Dark Thirty feels so lived in and credible, nearly as much so as to the journalistic integrity displayed by Mark Boal.

As in The Hurt Locker, the more austere younger cousin to Zero Dark Thirty, what drives the characters is the near obsession of finality, bridging danger and ingenuity with a sort of person hooked on an adrenaline rush.  Maya plots and thinks and reacts and yells at the boys who think little of the dicey chances she predicts, and at times the workmanlike, behind the scenes navigating of Zero Dark Thirty becomes a bit confusing.  Fast paced with multiple characters coming and going at all turns, keeping track of who's who and what's where the progress that lay ahead is a bit jarring from time to time.  It hardly matters so much, however, as Bigelow's fluid and spectacular control is directed from the open-- a staggering, in the dark, beginning in which we hear 9/11 responses first hand.  She moves with a swiftness and a directness that's remarkably controlled once we get to the thrilling climax-- a cleverly shot and nerve-inducing sequence that matters nil that we all know the eventual outcome.

If there is a fault, it may lie in that the zig-zaging from Pakistan to Afghanistan to Washington D.C. and single Easter egg of Obama appearing briefly on a television screen-- addressing America's stern anti-torture vein, no less-- it's that the nonstop steadfastness of Zero Dark Thirty is quite swift, even at it's estimate two-and-a-half-hour plus running time, that the human drama is made of small fragments.  The film may have the heart of the a very special episode of a television procedural drama, but Bigelow and Boal make up in ambition and directness, and the unerring desire to move things ahead.  The slightest moment of reflection is saved for the singular and nearly beatific final shot-- a prime, and for the only time a tight close of an emotional Maya, fraught with a seeming sense of not just relief and a need for release, but also a quietly poetic moment of "What now?" as her service as come to an end.  A-

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