Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

Most of the discussion surrounding Zero Dark Thirty so far has swirled around whether or not the film is pro-torture. Now, I don't have anything to add to the conversation that Andrew O'Heihr hasn't already (and more eloquently) said in his Salon article other than I'm glad that we're talking about torture again, rather than letting it get swept under the rug of American history. It's not surprising that the film would court such controversy: it hasn't even been two years since Seal Team Six infiltrated a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, and successfully killed America's Public Enemy #1, Osama bin Laden. At this point, not enough time has passed for us to effectively look back at this event and determine what it means: a significant victory in the War on Terror, a symbol of how ineffective said "war" is, or something else?

Luckily, director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal - who previously teamed up for 2009's terrific Best Picture Oscar winner The Hurt Locker - have made a film that is not so easily pigeonholed into being any kind of political statement. The film details the events that lead to bin Laden's death, from the perspective of Maya (Jessica Chastain), a CIA agent who gives her life over to hunting down the al-Qaeda leader. She becomes obsessed with finding courier Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, whom she believes will lead directly to bin Laden. Over the years she becomes more and more at ease with eliciting information, but at what cost to herself?

Zero Dark Thirty, as a film, is as complex as the story it tells. The film functions as both a military thriller and forensic investigation into what exactly happened, but it never breaks from white-knuckle tension (much like The Hurt Locker). The most tense moments of the film come in the last half hour, when the Seals (including Chris Pratt and Joel Edgarton) land in the compound. Bigelow makes the terrific decision to alternate between night-vision and film, giving the sequence a more documentary, "I was there" feel. However, that sense that anything could - and sometimes does - go wrong pervades the film, making scenes that could be mundane riveting.

However, what really makes the film spectacular is that it also functions as a character study. Throughout the film we see how the manhunt takes it's toll on those involved: especially Maya, who over the course of the film becomes increasingly comfortable with the "enhanced interrogation techniques" used on detainees for information. Chastain is incredible in the role, as is Jason Clarke as her mentor in the field; he's the cautionary tale that Maya fails to take heed of.

Zero Dark Thirty is a terrific film that presents a complex and at times unflattering picture of the War on Terror. It's a film that exposes the scars and dirty laundry that went into finding (and killing) Osama bin Laden. A

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