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REVIEW: ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ is politically charged

Published: Thursday, January 24, 2013

Updated: Thursday, January 24, 2013 14:01


Films that purport to be based off a true story are always a tad tricky to review. They can either be too close to the real life events they claim to depict and come off as boring, or they can deviate so far from the truth it’s positively laughable. Thus, it’s usually best to strike a happy medium when possible.

  Good thing Kathryn Bigelow knows how to make a good, politically-charged film. After winning the best director Oscar for “The Hurt Locker” in 2010, she has become the go-to gal for war and politics in the movies. Though it is not quite as ambitious or profound as her last film, “Zero Dark Thirty” still manages to deliver the goods.

  Some of the artistic liberties the film takes with the discovery and killing of Osama bin Laden are undeniably questionable. However, when the pieces fall into place, this is a tremendously well-made and watchable thriller. Some of the Oscar buzz the film is receiving is no doubt wholly justified.

  Two years after the Sept. 11 attacks, CIA operative Maya, played dutifully by Jessica Chastain, has just arrived at a CIA black site in the Middle East. Here she meets the deceivingly benign and affable Dan, played by Jason Clarke. He is nice one minute and utterly ruthless the next when dealing with suspected terrorists. Maya must observe and learn from him in order to effectively gather intelligence from suspected al-Qaida members in her hunt for answers on bin Laden.

  As several years pass, she settles into her role as a worker in the U.S. embassy in Pakistan under the supervision of Joseph Bradley, played by Kyle Chandler. She eventually gains a lead on the suspected courier of bin Laden named Abu Ahmed Al-Kuwaiti. Though her superiors insist he died in 2001, Maya is undeterred and continues to follow the trail. As it turns out, the CIA was unaware of Ahmed’s brothers and their physical similarities: Ahmed is still at large.

  After establishing a new connection with Dan, now working in Langley, Maya manages to obtain the home phone number of Ahmed’s mother and has those calls traced. Ahmed is later traced to an enigmatic compound located in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Bin Laden’s long secret hideout has finally been found, and now Maya has the chance to obtain confirmation through blood.

  The most crucial element that holds this film together is the strong performance from Jessica Chastain. Though meek in appearance, she is up to the Herculean task of not only getting us to believe her character’s drive, but convincing us she is cold and calculating in getting results. Her anger toward al-Qaida feels all too real as we watch some of her close cohorts fall victim to suicide bombings. She then nobly channels this rage into some of her dialogue and the results speak for themselves: She had me rapt start to finish.

Embodying some of the heavy handed themes present in the film is the robust and varied Jason Clarke. Needless to say, he provides a chilling performance. He puts on another face at will and demonstrates that perhaps real life CIA employees have acted in unspeakably brutal manners if it’s the means to an end in interrogation.

  The strong performances are backed up by an intriguingly layered though sometimes fragmented script by Mark Boal. Granted, it’s difficult to compress at least eight years worth of counter-terrorism intelligence and events related to al-Qaida into a thoughtful, engaging story. Though I admire the effort tremendously, I can’t help but wonder if pacing would have improved with a slightly different narrative direction. Some portions of the film seem to be out of focus since some background information is skipped over entirely.

  Rounding out the package is the slick cinematography and minimal yet effective score. Visual symbolism is readily apparent in several scenes and it helps move the story along effectively. The scene at the Abbottabad compound in particular looks outstanding. Different camera filters are used that put us directly into the shoes of SEAL Team Six. Though typically a gimmick in other films, the first-person camera views here generate plenty of suspense and uncertainty, even though we know how everything is going to come together.

  “Zero Dark Thirty” is a rewarding and pleasurable experience overall. None of its narrative flaws are overly significant and I wouldn’t be surprised if the film only gets better with age. The overall package is quite strong. Jessica Chastain fully deserves an Oscar for her gripping portrayal of Maya and some awards in good editing should be due as well. Politically controversial or not, it’s an excellent follow up to “The Hurt Locker.”

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