Friday, December 21, 2012

Zero Dark Thirty

Oscar winner Kathryn Bigelow returns to the military arena with the hard-charging, globetrotting Osama Bin Laden manhunt "Zero Dark Thirty," which, if it were a figure skater, would get full marks for technical proficiency and more moderate scores for artistic expression. The film is a considerable achievement, but next time out I'll be looking for more heart and soul from this talented director.

Jessica Chastain stars as Maya, a CIA agent recruited out of high school and quickly assigned to a Pakistan-based unit whose information-gathering techniques include waterboarding and other "enhanced" forms of interrogation. (Maya briefly flinches at the waterboarding the first time, but takes to physically abusive methods like a duck to water, telling one captive who begs for mercy, "You can help yourself by telling the truth.")

We're given no back story on Maya - it's classified -- and she rarely lets anyone in. ("OK, no boyfriend," a colleague asks, "but do you have any friends at all?") She pursues Bin Laden with a singleness of purpose that doesn't leave room for any kind of a life. It's a difficult part, nearly devoid of inherent emotion - whoever plays it has to bring to it whatever force it attains - and, for that reason, the film's success lies squarely on Chastain's shoulders.

In no time, the chameleonic Chastain has become indispensable, seemingly able to take on any part. She was the best thing about last year's overwrought "The Debt" and odious "The Help," and lent superb support to Michael Shannon in the fascinating "Take Shelter." For her, "Zero Dark Thirty" is a coming out party, sure to lead to Academy recognition and hefty paychecks.

I can't comment on the historical accuracy or the politics of the film - whether waterboarding ever resulted in valuable intel, say, or whether the raid on OBL's compound in Abbottabad was actually planned, as portrayed here, strictly as a kill mission, with the procurement of OBL's computer files and hard drives almost an afterthought. I can say that Bigelow and screenwriting collaborator Mark Boal canvas the globe and present events with reportorial rigor. When you know your shit - as these two do - you don't have to fall back on over-dramatization.

Still, "Zero" didn't grab me by the throat the way "Argo" did, and the night-goggled raid itself - the showpiece of the film and by some accounts one of the seminal sequences in recent film - is a bit of a letdown. I'd had an image of a surprise attack carried out with surgical precision and in near-silence. Instead, two Army helicopters loudly announced the arrival of the special forces, who encountered amazingly little resistance. (The shooting of OBL himself is presented as if it happened almost inadvertently.)

"Zero Dark Thirty" is well worth seeing, but nothing in the two-and-a-half hours that follow matches the power of the telephone call replayed over a completely black screen as the film opens. A woman has dialed 911 from a top floor of one of the Twin Towers. "Oh, God, it's so hot. I'm burning up. I'm going to die here, aren't I?"

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