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Review – Zero Dark Thirty

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Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty is a grim, complex, and ambitious war thriller that also happens to be one of the most truthful on-screen examinations of the War on Terror to date. It exposes the darker side of that war and of those who fought it. As such, there are no real heroes or villains in Zero Dark Thirty — just people who did what they thought they had to in order to win. Though this picture isn’t quite as nail-bitingly suspenseful as Bigelow’s Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker, it contains a much more complex narrative and tackles far more controversial issues (like torture). In other words, Zero Dark Thirty is certainly a worthy companion piece to The Hurt Locker.

As far as the story is concerned, Zero Dark Thirty is a dramatization of the CIA’s decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden, with the CIA officer Maya (Jessica Chastain) being the main driving force behind the hunt. The search for bin Laden and the politics behind it is the main focus of the movie, which means that it plays more like a procedural rather than a typical war thriller. So, if I were to compare it to The Hurt Locker, I’d say it is far more “talky” and contains fewer action sequences. Despite that, there are still quite a few memorable action set pieces in the movie, the most memorable of which is the raid on bin Laden’s secret compound in Pakistan.

But in truth, there is nothing more memorable in Zero Dark Thirty than its repulsive torture scenes that have led many people to believe that the film is “pro-torture,” but I’d say it’s a misinterpretation. The film indeed implies that torture has played an essential role in bin Laden’s capture — because that’s how Maya and her fellow CIA officers get their al-Qaeda captives to talk in the film — but that doesn’t mean that the film itself is taking a pro-torture stance. Let me explain why.

As I’ve already mentioned, Zero Dark Thirty presents its torture scenes in such an unpleasant and disturbing manner that it’s difficult not to be repulsed by them. What makes those scenes so repulsive is the fact that most of them don’t contain any on-screen violence and instead show the after-effects of violence on the actual victims — on their beaten faces and broken bodies. Besides the repulsive nature of the torture scenes, many of the film’s characters, including Maya and her fellow officer Dan (Jason Clarke), often express repugnance and regret when it comes to torturing their captives. So, instead of just saying that torture is good because it works (and it does in the film), Zero Dark Thirty seems to ask the question of whether it is worth the prize at the end of the road. In other words, the film doesn’t take a stance on this issue.

Now let’s talk about one of the most important aspects of Zero Dark Thirty — its incredible cast and the incredible performance by Jessica Chastain. What I like about Maya is that she is not your typical “strong” female lead akin Meryl Streep or Sigourney Weaver. She is tough for sure, but she is also incredibly vulnerable. By imbuing Maya with this vulnerability, Chastain has effectively created a very relatable and loveable character. In fact, Chastain gives us so much through her loaded performance that we can easily imagine her background and what drives her to do the things she does — even when the writing doesn’t seem to clue us in.

Another noteworthy performance comes from Jason Clarke who plays the conflicted CIA officer Dan. Clarke imbues Dan with enough humanity to keep him likeable in spite of his sometimes questionable actions. Generally speaking, the whole cast of Zero Dark Thirty is something worth bragging about.

As for Bigelow’s direction, it is impeccable, as always, with many scenes and sequences being shot with hand-held cameras to make the film look more like a documentary rather than fiction. The hand-held style of camera work has also allowed Bigelow to create incredibly suspenseful action set pieces, which deliberately make us lose track of main characters. As far as appearance is concerned, Zero Dark Thirty is very similar to The Hurt Locker.

Unfortunately, Zero Dark Thirty is not without its flaws. Most of them have to do with its pacing — especially in comparison to the perfectly-paced The Hurt Locker. The biggest problem with the movie is that it drags a little, with some sequences feeling too long. Some sequences certainly needed to be dragged out to generate suspense, but some of them are so long that they stop being suspenseful and instead become boring. Another mistake was Boal’s and Bigelow’s decision to divide Zero Dark Thirty into chapters with title cards appearing in-between each one, often interrupting the flow of the movie for no reason. The Hurt Locker didn’t have those and it was better for it.

In spite of those flaws, Zero Dark Thirty is still a marvelous creation. It’s not quite as masterful as The Hurt Locker, but it’s not too far behind either. So, if you enjoy war thrillers — or more importantly, if you have watched and enjoyed The Hurt Locker — then you will definitely love this film.

Rating: A-

By: Taras Trofimov

THE SCENE

The Scene