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The Oscar-Nominated “Zero Dark Thirty” is a Thought Provoking Thriller

January 11, 2013

By John C.

Zero Dark Thirty Poster“Who are you?” the CIA director (James Gandolfini) asks the determined young agent Maya (Jessica Chastain), as they look at a scale model of the apartment complex in Pakistan that might be hiding terrorist leader Osama bin Laden.   The scene comes about an hour from the end of Zero Dark Thirty, and her response is one of the most memorable moments in the film.  “I’m the motherf***er who found this place, sir,” she responds confidently.

This is the determination that drives the character Maya forward throughout Zero Dark Thirty, director Kathryn Bigelow’s tense recreation of the decade long search that started after 9/11 to take down the world’s most wanted man.  The film is nominated for five Oscars, including being among the nine titles in the running for Best Picture.  It finally opens in wide release this weekend.

After frantic phone calls from that tragic September day are heard over a black screen, Zero Dark Thirty opens with Dan (Jason Clarke) employing methods of torture to obtain information from Ammar (Reda Kateb), a man refusing to talk who might have connections to the terrorist leader.  It’s a disturbing sequence that sets the tone for things to come, a decade long manhunt filled with frustration and confusion that has been painstakingly recreated, culminating in 2011 with the successful capturing and killing of Osama bin Laden.

Although the graphic depictions of torture have already been the point of much debate, Zero Dark Thirty doesn’t pass judgement on the controversial issue, rather showing these scenes through an unflinching camera lens that allows the audience to use their own moral compass to decide when the characters have gone too far.  Kathryn Bigelow shoots the film as if it were a documentary and her strong voice as a female filmmaker shines through in the main character of Maya, a determined young woman who holds her own in a world dominated primarily by men.  The fact that Kathryn Bigelow was left of the Best Director field at the Oscars was one of the biggest surprises of nomination morning.

The excellent screenplay by Mark Boal is a deeply analytical and procedural piece of work, retelling all of the dead ends and loose threads that threatened to derail the mission, while capturing the determination that allowed them to succeed.  The lengthy running time of 157 minutes is sometimes felt throughout the middle section, but this part of the film is an integral lead up to the riveting final hour, as they create a game plan and launch an all out attack on the boxed in apartment complex where Osama bin Laden is believed to be hiding.  The raid itself is a visceral and thrilling sequence, brilliantly filmed through dark lighting and night vision goggles, as we wait for the crucial moment that we already know is coming.

Jessica Chastain is just excellent in the leading role, perfectly capturing the steely determination of her character and allowing her vulnerability to finally show through during the unforgettable final few scenes.  This is a character who has devoted much of her adulthood to the same mission, and at the end of the film we really sense her shock that this chapter of her life is finally over and we get the feeling that she is at a loss about what to do next.  Because even after the mission is over, the struggles of war continue to rage on, as the film so eloquently shows us.

Director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal last teamed up for The Hurt Locker in 2009, a hard hitting live wire of suspense that followed bomb defusal squads overseas and took home the Oscar for Best Picture.  That film was a powerful look at war as a drug, and Zero Dark Thirty is an excellent companion piece, a thought provoking thriller that deserves the Oscar attention it has received.

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