Ben Affleck’s Argo may have won the Oscar last year for Best Picture. But I doubt a finer mainstream market film was made in 2012 than Zero Dark Thirty.
Both are based on real-life CIA operations in the Muslim world. But while Argo is ultimately an old school feel-good Hollywood movie (hence its Oscar win), Zero Dark Thirty (a Best Picture nominee) is an entirely different beast: A deeply unsettling tale full of disturbing images (torture and women dying), moral ambiguity, uncertainty, messiness and raw emotions. Or in other words, a thoroughly modern-age film that resonates throughout with the powerful peal of reality, even if it is a fictional depiction of the hunt for and capture of Osama bin Laden.
It’s a complex film that makes skillful use of cinematic techniques, artfully shot and plotted yet pulling no punches, and an utterly gripping intelligence procedural that bears repeated viewing to fully grasp how an impassioned and ingenious female CIA agent gathers bits and shards of intelligence to locate where bin Laden is hiding. It’s not easy viewing, but if one can appreciate it for what it ultimately is – a rare gem of superior cinema – it satisfies like few other movies of recent memory.
It’s the second film by director Kathryn Bigelow, who masterfully debuted with another modern war tale that, like Zero Dark Thirty, is at its heart a moving and unsetting human drama, The Hurt Locker. All the considerable promise shown in that first outing flourishes in this work. With both she has proven she can stand shoulder to shoulder with the great male directors of the war and spy films yet enriches the approach to such tried and true genres with a rich emotionality that while strong and unflinching displays a depth and range of feeling that shows an unmistakable contemporary woman’s touch.
Nowhere is this more stunningly evident than in the protagonist CIA analyst masterfully played by Jessica Chastain. Her willingness to look and emote with a true-life rawness displays a dramatic potency that will serve her career abundantly over what augurs to be a lifetime of accomplishment.
It’s only the capstone of an across-the-board casting coup that dared to take some familiar TV actors and offer them the chance to play roles that erase any hints of the characters they are so indelibly associated with. Kyle Chandler, whose ease and ready confidence as Coach Taylor in the groundbreaking Friday Night Lights was the beating heart of that show, is here a CIA station chief bristling with tension. Even more impressive is Chris Pratt, a goofball in the TV comedy Parks and Recreation, who strikes a perfectly balanced note as a good-natured yet utterly professional leader of the Seal team that kills bin Laden. And in a rather minor role as the head of the CIA, James Gandolfini finally erases any trace of Tony Soprano.
I could write another column or three on the political implications and issues the film raises, the moral and ethical quagmire that is its setting, and the geopolitical and military questions it raises (and do so without even touching on the larger forces that in some way or another all feed into 9/11, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq plus the challenge that is Islamic fundamentalist terror, and how the United States should deal with it). But my focus here is primarily this monumental work of filmmaking whose story is woven into the international times we live in.
Every element – from the dark screen opening to the sounds of World Trade Center 911 calls to the double helix of cruel torture and false friendly suasion of interrogation techniques to the vivid you-are-there-on-the-ground depiction of the raid on bin Laden’s hideout to the continuing ambiguity that makes for a daring ending (and one where I believe Bigelow’s gender makes an essential difference from Hollywood norms) – threads together to create both a monumental work of cinema and a benchmark document of the troubling times in which we live.
Yes, Zero Dark Thirty is a film of that rare quality and significance. It’s not an easy movie to experience, and it leaves a haunting wake in its aftermath. But if you have the guts to allow it into your consciousness and the ability to confront and absorb it on its own terms, it’s an essential cinematic experience of the highest order.
Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
From The Progressive Populist, May 15, 2013
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