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Zero Dark Thirty - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews
one person's obsessive addiction to film
Zero Dark Thirty
Directing: B+
Acting: A-
Writing: B
Cinematography: B+
Editing: A-

There's just no way to talk about this movie anymore without addressing the controversy about torture. Is director Kathryn Bigelow justifying it? Has she gone too far with creative license? Usually I don't believe in considering these sorts of questions because my primary concern, as a movie-goer, is whether the movie works on its own terms. In most ways, Zero Dark Thirty does.

But I'm a little stuck on the first thing seen on screen. It doesn't say the rather more open to interpretation "Based on a true story," or even just "based on actual events." It gets even more specific: "Based on first hand accounts of actual events." The clear implication here is that what we are about to see is what happened as told by people who were actually there.

So why the absolutely clear implication in this film that torture tactics directly led to the discovery of Osama bin Laden's location, if we are to believe official assurances that this was not the case? Bigelow appears intent on not offering any judgment of this, either, except that in her movie, if one plus one equals two, then torture works. And many say that it is not at all reliable. There is one reference, late in the film, to detainees giving up information "under duress." But the context of it is that the Obama administration is making it more difficult for the CIA to do its job.

And frankly, I don't get it. One might argue that Bigelow and writer Mark Boal (who also wrote Bigelow's better 2008 movie The Hurt Locker) were simply taking creative license, and showing us that these tactics have been employed by U.S. officials. The thing is, everybody knows that. It's true that seeing it here is more disturbing than usual, as the scenes are extensive and include both water boarding and nudity-related humiliation. Seeing it, and being disturbed by it, is one thing. Why tie it to the direct result, albeit after several years, of finding Osama bin Laden.

There's a lot of torture in this movie. People talk about it and it's easy to assume it's just in one or two scenes. But there is scene after scene after scene. A small break leads to a bigger break leads to the biggest break, and the chain of events, so far as Zero Dark Thirty tells it, begins with torture.

So I have mixed feelings about this movie, which has no aim to be mere entertainment. I suppose that's good, because it isn't pure entertainment. To its credit, I found it gripping most of the time. There's a lot of talk about how most of the stuff regarding how bin Laden was caught is already readily available information, but that's a misguided approach to judging this movie. Just because the information is available doesn't mean anyone going to see it has ready everything about that mission already. I certainly didn't feel like I was watching a rerun, and even knowing that bin Laden gets caught, the suspense is deep in how it happens, especially when the SEAL team is storming the compound in Pakistan.

But this is an unusual movie in that it's relatively lacking in plot and drama. Ultimately, it's a sequence of events. Given the subject matter, some might call that a good thing.

Some of the casting is curious. Paul Greengrass made a very smart move with his 2006 movie United 93 where he made a point to cast unknown actors. He didn't want stars to distract from the story. Bigelow would have done well to do the same here, but instead she fills supporting roles with the likes of Kyle Chandler as a CIA Islamabad Station Chief Joseph Bradley; Mark Duplass as a CIA analyst; Christopher Stanley as Admiral Bill McCraven; and even James Gandolfini as CIA director Leon Panetta. And instead of thinking of these people as their characters, I found myself thinking, Oh! It's the guy from Humpday! And the stepdad from Mad Men!

The story revolves around Maya, as played expertly by Jessica Chastain, though, and Chastain really must be commended. This is an increasingly ubiquitous actress, with massive exposure, and still she's the only person in this film who truly disappears into her role. I never thought of her as Jessica, only as Maya. Jennifer Ehle does nearly as well in the only other major female role, as one of Maya's colleagues.

Maya is single-minded and obsessed. Zero Dark Thirty zeroes in on her obsession, and that includes learning to have a strong stomach as she is witness to extensive torture. And if nothing else, this movie is expertly edited. Even clocking in at two hours and 37 minutes, it doesn't feel long -- there's just so much crammed into it. The film opens on September 11, 2001, after all (thankfully without any footage of the Twin Towers; we've had enough of that), and covers the next full decade.

By the time the SEAL team is flying in their helicopters on their way to the compound, and the ensuing scene unfolds, at least in terms of storytelling (if not the actual truth), all that came before it renders it worth the wait. And here again, there is clear intent of objectivity, of mere observance rather than of moral judgment of the proceedings. There is some real brutality here. Many children are present, and they are witness to the killing of their parents. Bin Laden is seen only for the briefest of moments, and only clearly in the view screen of a camera being used to take pictures of his body. He is such a massive symbol, nothing more is needed.

Zero Dark Thirty could have been a great film. It was clearly made by a large group of very talented people. I just don't think it's as great as people are making it out to be. And as much as it pains me to say it, I think the one thing that does bring it down, even if only to a slight degree, is its approach to torture. It's never clear why torture is presented in this way. There has to be a reason for it, and I can't figure it out. That's not really the kind of mystery you want a movie to have.

But it still presents the story of Bin Laden's capture in a far more efficient way than his actual capture was done, and that's something.

Jessica Chastain is the woman who found Bi Laden in ZERO DARK THIRTY.</a>

Overall: B+
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