Thursday, January 17, 2013

In Theaters: ZERO DARK THIRTY (2012)

(US - 2012)

Directed by Kathryn Bigelow.  Written by Mark Boal.  Cast: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Joel Edgerton, Jennifer Ehle, James Gandolfini, Edgar Ramirez, Mark Strong, Kyle Chandler, Harold Perrineau, Stephen Dillane, Chris Pratt, Scott Adkins, Reda Kateb, Fares Fares, Mark Duplass, Frank Grillo, Nash Edgerton.  (R, 157 mins)

Factoring out the controversy and whatever one chooses to be outraged about, director Kathryn Bigelow (NEAR DARK, POINT BREAK, STRANGE DAYS) and screenwriter Mark Boal reunite following the Oscar-winning THE HURT LOCKER to fashion what will likely be cinema's defining chronicle of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden.  The film has been criticized for a pro-torture stance, but I don't see it taking that viewpoint as much as it acknowledges that yes, torture took place.  It doesn't sugarcoat it or pretend it didn't exist because then it would be sanitizing what its purporting to depict.  The film doesn't come down on one side or the other, and my interpretation of it is that it's presented and the audience can decide for itself to what extent it glorifies or condemns it.  Anyone can find any meaning in anything if they're looking for it, and if it's not there and they want it to be, then they'll simply invent it.  The way the film plays out, it's detective and surveillance work that are the primary keys in finding Bin Laden (or, "UBL" as the film calls him).  "Enhanced interrogation" took place and the closest we get to a commentary on the topic is CIA black ops officer Dan (Jason Clarke) getting burned out on his current job and requesting a transfer back to Washington, DC, giving these telling words of advice to colleague Maya (Jessica Chastain): "Watch yourself...you don't wanna be the last one holding a dog collar when oversight comes down on this place."  That isn't the film "condoning" it as much as it's accurately depicting what was, at the time, an accepted practice, carried out by people following orders.  Bigelow and Boal don't come out and say "This is bad," because it's not their job.  They're telling the story and telling it as close to the way it went down as they can and time and dramatic license will allow.  The people complaining one way or the other are the ones who want their movies to do their thinking for them.  And this is a film that runs nearly two hours and 40 minutes, with the torture confined to the first 30 minutes, so the fixation reeks of manufactured outrage.  A film like this is a powderkeg and people on both sides of the political spectrum are bound to be touchy about something.  There's no agenda here, and to continue harping on it detracts people from experiencing a thoroughly gripping thriller.  There's much here in the way or moral and ethical complexity.  We know how it ends, but it's not meant to be a stand-up-and-cheer ending.  There's no Lee Greenwood over the closing credits here, people.

The film focuses on CIA officer Maya and her obsessive pursuit of UBL from 2003 until the raid on the compound in Abbottabad in 2011.  For nearly a decade, she works day and night, fighting colleagues and Washington bureaucrats who have more or less written off UBL and are focusing on other terrorist operations.  In sticking with the clinical, procedural presentation (the film is a direct relative of similarly-styled films like ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN and the more recent ZODIAC and CARLOS, which shares a star with this film's Edgar Ramirez), Maya remains an enigmatic figure throughout.  We learn nothing about her other than she was recruited out of high school and seems to have no friends or close contacts.  Bigelow and Boal try to give her some emotional qualities and allow the audience to connect with her through one tragic event midway through the film that tries to, for lack of a better word, personalize her quest for UBL and allow the audience to connect with her, but it's not really necessary, especially since Maya becomes a background character for a good chunk of the last act when the compound is raided.

Chastain, an actress who's as relentlessly devoted to her career as the character she's playing (this is her 12th film since the beginning of 2011), succeeds at making us care about a character who, by design, isn't very well-defined.  She captures the intensity, the dedication, the obsession (the scene where she shouts down feet-dragging CIA Islamabad Station Chief Kyle Chandler probably secured her Oscar nomination), and the loneliness of someone in this job.  The film only falters slightly when it tries to force a sense of "humanity" on her.  For example, we never really convincingly see the friendship develop between Maya and fellow CIA officer Jessica (Jennifer Ehle), which doesn't really make the turn of events that transpires with Jessica have much in the way of a dramatic impact on Maya herself.  With little development, the two go from being curt, stand-offish colleagues to texting BFFs.  Of course, there's a time element involved and one scene might take place 18 months after the one that preceded it, but it's when the film tries to make the characters, in particular Maya, more accessible and more appealing is when it gets briefly sidetracked to a small extent.

But those are minor gripes.  For the most part, this is an intense and expertly-crafted look at one of the biggest manhunts in US history, filled with nail-biting suspense (the pursuit of UBL's chief courier and the 2008 bombing of the Islamabad Marriott are standouts) and globe-trotting locations, and the final raid on UBL's hiding place in a compound in a middle-class Abbottabad neighborhood is one of the great set pieces in one of the most powerful films of 2012.

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