Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty Review: I Can't Hear the Controversy Over My Freedom

Let me get something out of the way first: Zero Dark Thirty is a more serious film than I’m used to reviewing on this site. You could argue that Django Unchained had some grisly subject matter; however, any film in which Samuel L. Jackson plays Samuel L. Jackson must be treated as such. I say all this as a disclaimer – since this is a darker, more grounded film, I might not lay on the jokes as heavily as I usually do. If that bothers you, I...don’t care.

Despite the loud award show buzz, many of the people I’ve talked to aren’t completely clear on what Zero Dark Thirty is. The title represents the time of night when a group of American soldiers stormed a heavily guarded compound in Pakistan and assassinated Osama bin Laden, the most wanted terrorist in recent history. You might have heard of him. While the film bases many of its trailers and much of its publicity on the raid, that mission makes up only the film’s third act. The rest of the film centers on Maya, an intelligence officer for the CIA played by The Help’s Jessica Chastain, and her efforts to locate UBL’s main courier and, subsequently, the big guy himself.

Zero Dark Thirty opens with a sobering reminder of the September 11th attacks; despite the abundance of news footage available, director Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker) chooses to play only audio clips from that infamous day. She knows we all remember the attacks vividly, so these phone calls and audio logs are all she needs to inform us what kind of film this is. From this scene until the credits, the film is never less than fully engaging, even with a two-and-a-half hour run time. The average Joe may get lost in the jargon-heavy dialogue, but Zero Dark Thirty actively tries to pull him back in once the specifics are laid out for those who will catch them. This helps immensely, since the majority of the plot is showcased through quick-witted conversations straight out of a Gilmore Girls episode.

Bledel always used a surprising number of bin Laden references.
Just when you get the notion that Zero Dark Thirty is beginning to drag, it dives right into that fateful raid on bin Laden's compound. This scene had been talked up enough to draw some expectations, and it happily delivers. The raid is one of the tensest scenes I've experienced at the movies in recent memory. My only complaint is that the film refused to break its mood and show the kill shot through one of those bloody slow-motion thingies.

This joke would be much funnier if I could use PhotoShop.
The main attraction of Zero Dark Thirty is the collection of superb performances from each actor. Jason Clarke and Jessica Chastain offer a very human approach to our preconceived notions of government interrogators. Once the training wheels come off of Chastain's character, Maya, the audience comes to the realization that she's not as helpless as we were initially led to believe. Chastain definitely deserves some recognition for her performance. It feels good to have award buzz around a female character who didn't exist for the sole purpose of dying and leaving her daughter with Hugh Jackman. A number of other impressive actors make appearances, such as James Gandolfini, Joel Edgerton, and John Barrowman - Chris Pratt even gives us a surprising break from his usual comedic performances. Yet, none of these make attempts to draw too much attention and distract from the story.

Here's a quick aside: By now, you've probably heard of the controversy regarding the film's use of enhanced interrogation techniques. I'm not going to start a political debate here, that's not what this blog is for. Nevertheless, the torture scenes are as disturbing as you've heard. Yet, in my opinion, the film makes an excellent effort to avoid taking a political stance. The film shows torture as a very effective method of extracting information. But before you get that conservative boner, just know that Zero Dark Thirty's necessary evil has enough of the "evil" to balance out the "necessary."

Wow, that was heavy. I'll leave you with this picture of my brother-in-law. In the meantime, check out Zero Dark Thirty. Also, don't tread on me.

Don't judge. He's family.

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