Review - Zero Dark Thirty

Zero Dark Thirty (2012), R, 157 minutes - Zero Dark Thirty.  Military slang for thirty minutes past an unspecified hour in the early morning (before 10am when the hours are prefixed by a '0').  This is the phrase that provides Kathryn Bigelow's latest military thriller chronicling the ten year hunt for Osama bin Laden with its name (similarly to 2008's The Hurt Locker).

Based on first hand accounts, Zero Dark Thirty begins with an eerie, blank screen with cell phone and radio chatter from people experiencing the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center.  It then skips forward two years and picks up with the interrogation of a detained al Queda member by a CIA agent named Dan (Jason Clarke).  Mid way through the interrogation we are introduced to the driving force behind the successful search for bin Laden, another CIA agent named Maya (Jessica Chastain).  Maya is fairly new to the CIA and is on her first assignment.  Brutal torture tactics are used to extract information from the detainee and we can see how uncomfortable Maya is with the practices being used.  Skip ahead another couple of years and we see Maya leading an interrogation and employing the same types of tactics that had bothered her so much before.  She has noticeably hardened as she has gotten deeper in the operation.  Around this time Dan informs her that he's 'getting out' and going back to Washington to take a desk job.  He's seen 'too many naked men' during interrogations over the years and the brutality of the job is getting to him.  Dan advises Maya that she should do the same, that she's wearing thin.  She ignores his advice and buries herself even deeper in her efforts.  The film then focuses on her quest for bin Laden, which receives less and less help after a government mandate shutting down the detainee program.  She survives a couple of terrorist attacks, but loses some fellow friends and agents along the way and becomes even more set on finishing what she started.

The really amazing thing about this film is that just like Argo, we already know the outcome (Navy S.E.A.L. Team 6's successful infiltration of Osama bin Laden's compound including his execution).  Despite our knowing that, Zero Dark Thirty is unbelievably intense all the way through.  Jessica Chastain is excellent as Maya.  She takes a 'newbie' CIA agent and develops her over time into a strong, determined, single minded agent, confident in her skills.  She stays focused on the task she was originally assigned, even when everyone else's focus has shifted, and its an uphill climb most of the time.  Jason Clarke also turns in a strong performance as Dan, showing Maya the ropes, then helping where he can in his new capacity back in D.C..  The rest of the cast is high quality as well, with recognizable faces like Kyle Chandler, Mark Strong, James Gandolfini, Joel Edgerton, Chris Pratt, and Harold Perrineau.  All of these actors have limited screen time, but do a very good job when their time comes.  There are even quick cameos from John Barrowman (Doctor Who, Torchwood) and Mark Duplass (The League).  I should also mention that the script was written by Mark Boal, marking his second collaboration with Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker being the first).

This year's Oscar nominees where announced this past Thursday, and rightfully so, Zero Dark Thirty picked up five nominations (Best Picture, Best Actress - Jessica Chastain, Best Writing - Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen, Best Achievement in Editing, and Best Achievement in Sound Editing).  Most notable was Kathryn Bigelow's omission from the Best Achievement in Directing category, which she won in 2010 for The Hurt Locker.  While I have not seen all of the films from the directors that were nominated, I have a hard time believing that she was snubbed.  After The Hurt Locker and this film, Kathryn Bigelow is a director that I now eagerly await new projects from.  Jessica Chastain has also become a personal favorite after turns in The Debt, The Help, and this excellent performance.

There are a couple of disturbing scenes which have led to quite a bit of press about the film's portrayal of torture, but I don't feel that it's anything worse than we have seen on television (another personal favorite, 24, comes to mind).   I have been holding off on posting my Top 10 Films of 2012 list because I was really looking forward to Zero Dark Thirty and it hadn't been released in my area yet.  Now that I've seen it, I'm glad that I waited.  Not only does Zero Dark Thirty make the list, but it jumps right to the top alongside Lincoln in my opinion.  I love the way it handles the sensitive subject matter, the characters conveying a sense of relief and achievement without glorifying any of the terrible actions that were taken.  I highly recommend Zero Dark Thirty for just about anyone (after all, it is rated R).

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