Today’s Movie Review – Zero Dark Thirty

Note: Minor spoilers at the end, but it is a historical movie, so you should know what happens unless you are one of those crazy “We didn’t actually kill Osama bin Laden” deniers.

As the 2013 movie year starts off with a bang with the release of such gold as Texas Chainsaw 3D and Gangster Squad, typical January fare if I’ve ever seen it, we finally had the wide release of Zero Dark Thirty, the Usama bin Laden movie from Kathryn Bigelow. As anticipated, it was nominated for Best Picture this year, and was probably the last of the nine Best Picture nominees that I really wanted to see before the Oscars in February.*

*I’ll probably try and see Beast of the Southern Wilds and Life of Pi, though I don’t know if I will take the time to watch Amour or Silver Linings Playbook.

I wasn’t a terribly huge fan of The Hurt Locker, Bigelow’s last movie that happened to win Best Picture in 2008. It didn’t have the realism that I expected, and while I understand that it is a fictional movie, I didn’t by Jeremy Renner as an EOD technician, especially after talking to a handful while in Iraq. They are some of the most careful folks at practicing their tradecraft, and I thought Renner’s character wouldn’t have been a great EOD tech.

Still, the reviews about Zero Dark Thirty were generally positive, with most people saying it was pretty much a lock for Best Picture. While I don’t necessarily think it is a lock, primarily because there were some great movies this year, it has moved into the top spot of the five nominees that I have seen thus far:

  1. Zero Dark Thirty
  2. Django Unchained
  3. Lincoln
  4. Argo (Fuck Yourself)
  5. Les Miserables*

*Les Mis only makes the list by default. My 5th favorite movie this year was Looper, which did not receive any nominations last week. I imagine Les Mis, which I found pretty boring for most parts, could be replaced if I get around to seeing some of the other nominees, but we will see.

With these high expectations, but checking my disdain for Kathryn Bigelow at the door, I went into the movie hoping that the movie was at least as good as most people were saying. A lot of people were complaining about the torture presented in the film, that it presents America in a negative light; to that complaint, I’ll say that if information received via torture helped prevent future attacks than I am not opposed. And in the case of the final termination of Usama bin Laden, I am willing to let it slide. It’s just unfortunate that it took over a decade to find him.

The movie itself was 157 minutes long, and it was paced in a way that didn’t make it feel that long. It remained engaging when there wasn’t a lot going on in the scene, and Jessica Chastain is magical every time she is on screen, which is probably for around 85% of the movie. The movie slowly builds the case to the assault on UBL’s compound over the first 2 hours of the movie, linking the “based on actual events” storytelling with real life events that occurred: the London bombing on July 7, 2004; the Islamabad Marriott Hotel bombing in 2008, and the Camp Chapman, Afghanistan attack in 2009. However, it was the handling of the event that set everything off that I thought helped place the movie in the proper context.

In the hands of a weaker filmmaker, I think the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center on 9/11 would have been shown in a different way. There is not a more profound image for the last 15 years than the buildings smoking before collapsing, or even the footage of the second plane crashing into the second tower. Instead of recycling this overused image, Bigelow instead opens the movie with the date on a black screen and plays about five minutes of 911 calls from that day, not showing any of the destruction crafted by UBL. In my opinion, it is a more powerful opening this way, and helps to better transition the film to the opening scene, which is the torturing of a detainee to try and get information.

Chastain’s Maya doggedly pursues a link to UBL, eventually centering in on a courier that is the famed terrorist’s only contact to the outside world. The methods she used to get the required information might be considered less than kosher, but in the end, it is depicted that good ol’ fashioned spy craft is what leads the CIA to the compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, which is then watched for a very long time before the president orders the raid in the early hours of May 2, 2011.

The raid itself, which is still technically classified, is shot through the night vision of SEAL Team 6 for the most part and seems to marry up well with the official accounts of what happened. I felt that the SEAL team was portrayed in a way that I would imagine they would have been, not being overly excited by the mission or taking extra glory in being the person to shoot UBL with the fatal bullet. This is another spot where a lesser filmmaker could have “gungho’d” the SEALs up a bit, but Bigelow decided to portray them as the professionals that they are. It was really well done.

Finally, after confirming a “Geronimo” was indeed UBL, Maya gets to decompress after 8+ years of tracking her one priority. She gets on a plane to anywhere, sent specifically for her, and she just sits down and starts to cry. It truly was a beautiful scene, and an appropriate way to end the movie. No cut to President Obama stepping up to the podium announcing the death of UBL, and no needless dialogue after the pilot asks her where to go. Just a woman finally giving herself a chance to let it all sink in, and the impact that she felt from it. A truly moving shot.

As mentioned previously, this movie has moved into the top spot among my favorite movies of 2012. And though it would have been nice to see a Best Director nomination for Bigelow, I think she will still walk away with the Best Picture, which is a just reward. If you have a chance to see this movie in theaters, you will not be disappointed, unless you hate America or movies that are good.

Until next time…



2 thoughts on “Today’s Movie Review – Zero Dark Thirty

  1. Excellent review sir. We are in total agreement about much the closing shot we watched (Maya alone – with no task, destination, or expectations clearly spelled out.0 was so much more forceful and dynamic than closing with Obama making the announcement.

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