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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, January 4, 2013 - Volume 41 Issue 1
The truth is in here - Engrossing Zero Dark Thirty an explosive procedural
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The truth is in here - Engrossing Zero Dark Thirty an explosive procedural

by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

ZERO DARK THIRTY
Opens January 4


Zero Dark Thirty, written and directed by Academy Award winners (for The Hurt Locker) Mark Boal and Kathryn Bigelow, chronicles the decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden. It is seen through the eyes of a CIA analyst, Maya (Jessica Chastain), a woman so driven and focused she becomes the catalyst for crafting together the evidence that led SEAL Team Six to raid a not-so-secluded compound in Pakistan where they found, and killed, their man. It is a movie that paints a journalistic picture of events while also being a pulse-pounding thriller of the first degree. In short, it is one of the greatest cinematic procedurals ever made. More than that, it is without question 2012s best picture and a movie we will be discussing, studying, and debating for generations to come.

The film is a step-by-step examination of the investigative process it took on the part of a committed group of analysts to discover bin Ladens whereabouts. Like All the Presidents Men or Zodiac before it, Bigelow and Boal have gone into exhaustive detail to make sure the yarn theyre spinning feels as authentic and as believable as possible. I felt dropped right into the center of the proceedings, found myself sitting precariously on top of Mayas svelte, if resolute, shoulders. We are in this movie, start to finish, and throughout it all I was glued to my seat in a state of profound disbelief and fascination I can barely describe.

CAREFULLY RESEARCHED
The amount of research that went into all of this is apparent from the start. Working from declassified files, public records, and interviews with those in the know, Boal uses his journalistic skills to craft a screenplay that oozes legitimacy. At the same time, he remembers to tell a compelling story, filling the screen with multidimensional characters and emotions that are as absorbing as they are intimate, everything revolving around Maya - herself based on a very real woman who supposedly did much of what is depicted here - and her growing obsession with the man responsible for the most devastating terrorist attack in United States history.

With all this being the case, Bigelow and Boal must have realized early on that for authenticitys sake they were going to have to travel into some pretty uncomforting corners. Knowing this, they drop us, and Maya, into the interview of an al-Qaeda operative (A Prophets Reda Kateb) by senior CIA analyst Dan (Jason Clarke), who employs so-called enhanced interrogation techniques, including waterboarding.

NO MORAL JUDGMENTS
The movie makes no judgment about the use of these techniques. It does not claim they were essential in the gaining of intelligence information, and it does not claim they werent. It does not claim that the name of the courier - a central figure who would ultimately lead to bin Ladens whereabouts - was first heard from this mans mouth.

What this sequence does is show the importance of the moment for Maya, how viewing this interrogation changes her and gets her to rethink what the CIA is doing. It leads her to ponder other ways to gain information, convincing Dan that subterfuge with the prisoner might lead to his dealing with them. She starts to come up with new ways of following leads and is the first one to put the pieces together regarding the courier, going through countless hours of interrogation, interview footage, and transcripts, slowly realizing that this man might be the key to bin Laden when all those around her think shes wasting her time.

This conceit will not sit well with many. The filmmakers refusal to pass judgment on CIA practice, to show it for what it was and nothing more, will unsettle and discomfort even the most hardened of viewers. Its a despicable sequence, one that made me want to scream and yell at the screen for it to stop. At the same time, its importance for Maya, for her transformation, for her evolution as a character and as a detective determined to get her man, is equally undeniable. The moral quagmire Bigelow and Boal present is every bit as important now as it was before the unveiling of bin Ladens whereabouts.

Thing is, while the critical focus on the film seems to have dwelled so much on this one aspect, the torture portion of the film takes up actually very little of its almost three-hour running time. The filmmakers are every bit as obsessive and as observant about every other factor in this hunt as they are this one, showing successes and failures with the same unflinching eye. More, the ultimate raid is devastatingly effective, a clinical descent into controlled chaos thats brutally forthright in its depiction of the SEAL teams effective dismantling of bin Ladens compound. There is no fanfare, no blaring trumpets, no uninhibited emotion, just the controlled firing of the military units weaponry as they make their way clinically floor-by-floor before ultimately firing a bullet into the head of their intended target.

COMPLEX CHARACTERS
Chastain is remarkable. As great as she was in her Oscar-nominated turn in The Help, as outstanding as she was in Take Shelter, The Tree of Life, Lawless, The Debt, Coriolanus, or Texas Killing Fields, if you can believe it the young actress is even better here. Maya is unsentimentally structured, doesnt come with acres of back story, and isnt an easy person to read. At the same time, Chastain makes her a nuanced, multi-dimensional force of nature, reveling in her interiors while also presenting a steely exterior fa├žade allowing her to do her job better than just about everyone else. Her passions become palpable, her reasons for going on undeniable, making revelations that her success could inadvertently transform her into an empty shell with nothing new to fight somewhat upsetting.

But lets not forget about Clarke. His Dan is not what he appears to be, and as things progress its clear he is just as complicated a figure as any the film has to offer. Who he is at the beginning of the movie is not the same man that he becomes by the end of it, and catching up with all the nuances that make up his personality isnt as easy as one might first assume.

There is plenty more that can be written about Zero Dark Thirty (so named for the military slang for 12:30 a.m., the time the SEAL assault on bin Ladens Abbottabad compound began), and Im sure as time goes by many will be doing just that. As a movie, however, as a singular entertainment dissecting the decade-long manhunt for the most wanted international terrorist the world has known, no stone goes unturned, no angle remains unexplored, and by the time the attack commences my pulse was racing to such a degree I was worried I might be having a heart attack. All that needs to be said is that Bigelows movie is a triumph, and seeing it should be the first priority of every potential viewer, regardless of his or her political persuasion.

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