Movie Review: Zero Dark Thirty- The Team of Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal Deliver a Riveting Thriller Complex in Character and Procedure

zero-dark-thirty-2012-pic04Patience is a virtue that is often times forgotten especially when it comes to the impatient world of Hollywood. One always has to wonder if a film about the search and execution of Osama Bin Laden, an event barely two years old as of this writing, is appropriate for the medium of cinema already. Perhaps it was the controversy and rushed relevance of the event that greatly intrigued the creative team behind Zero Dark Thirty screenwriter Mark Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow, and they seemed like the right choice after their Academy Award acceptance with The Hurt Locker. There is no doubt that Boal’s incredible balance as a writer mixed with Bigelow’s intense visuals are what in the end make Zero Dark Thirty an incredibly captivating thriller. It’s a film that engrosses you in the minutia of details, the brutality of procedures, and the complexities of intelligence gathering while not being alienating, preachy, or tedious. Mark Boal’s script presents the world as is and never takes a moral standing on either side basically giving you, the viewer, your own biases or beliefs to reflect upon. Because Zero Dark Thirty embraces subtlety of character and process instead of boisterous action and lecturing on message it really is a fully encompassing film experience that has a great deal of tension and depth heightened by the best of filmmaking elements, such as editing, cinematography, and acting. There might be a question that still lingers on whether this was the appropriate time to make such a film, especially with the limitations on information (though the beginning titles say it’s based on first-hand accounts). However, Zero Dark Thirty as a thriller shows that the team of Bigelow and Boal can make captivating and complex cinema that respects its audience. It may not reach as deep of a level with subjective character experience as they did with The Hurt Locker, but it’s still a film to marvel at for mere construction and delivery.

Mark Boal’s script follows a decade long search for Osama Bin Laden through intelligence gathering post-9/11 through the eyes of Maya (Jessica Chastain), a CIA intelligence operative who eventually sees the capturing of Bin Laden as incredibly personal. Opening with a haunting pitch black image with phone calls from last moments of victims of 9/11 we move into the gritty side of detainee information gathering. What’s interesting to note is that Mark Boal and Kathryn Bigelow, whatever their convictions are on torture, never have any character make a moral claim on its use. Whatever your position you will see torture in its honest form and it takes a great deal of tact from a director to never insert their personal opinion. Zero Dark Thirty showcases every step of the process of obtaining Osama Bin Laden and an uncomfortable aspect of that journey for most is the fact that torture did obtain essential information. Information is one part and the execution of that information is an entirely different matter and Mark Boal makes both parts of the film flow seamlessly in his writing. Witnessing even the most mundane of intelligence work Boal is able to make the procedural extremely intriguing in its detail and frustrating in what seems to be a never ending game of cat and mouse. Another strong suit in his writing abilities is the way he introduces character depth in basically all of his authentic portrayals. These are complex, deeply layered individuals with different beliefs, reactions, and sentiments and it greatly expands the film experience beyond the archetypal laziness of most movies. As we follow Maya’s complete dedication and devout obsession to finding Bin Laden it reminds us of how much we wanted this all to succeed, perhaps no matter what the cost. But the script isn’t that simple and because it is multifaceted in character perception, beliefs, and reaction it really captures all the varying reactions, beliefs, and perceptions on the tale from each audience member. It is most definitely a film that adapts to the personality that is viewing it, which is a drastically difficult task to complete and it was aided not only by the script but also Kathryn Bigelow’s highly developed directing.

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Bigelow has surprised us with her film The Hurt Locker considering she was the same director of Point Break, Near Dark, and Strange Days (and those are the better films on her filmography). And now she has given us another redeeming film with Zero Dark Thirty repeating a solid creative delivery that she found with The Hurt Locker. Because this time around she was doing a full on procedural thriller instead of a subjective meditation on an individual she had to utilize the unsteady camera work, the sporadic editing, and gripping performances to keep us involved in the grueling process. Her foresight in this project could greatly be credited to the script but her involvement from the beginning suggests she lived and breathed this tale as much as her protagonist Maya lived and breathed this personalized manhunt. She obviously worked closely with cinematographer Greig Fraser to really heighten the uneasiness of the image to compliment the tone of the overall film. And those images all were chosen delicately by editors William Goldenberg and Dylan Tichenor who appropriately paced the thrilling procedure never allowing it to seem dull. Bigelow has shown she has grown as a storyteller and perhaps it’s because she has linked with Mark Boal who knows how to write incredibly layered characters that she is able to understand and embrace. Her diligence behind the camera is what makes this film a solid experience despite the still lingering question of whether it was needed yet. But if it weren’t for her connection with the characters and bringing out the best possible performances from her actors then this type of thriller would become incredibly flat.

Of course the great and wonderful Jessica Chastain leads the large cast of familiar faces with grace and subtlety, two qualities that are surprisingly rare for actors these days. Her transformative work last year was awe inspiring as she went from charming in The Help to soulfully damaged in Tree of Life (not to mention the other five films she gave great performances in all last year alone). With Zero Dark Thirty she taps into a raw and determined nature that is only shown through brief, subtle changes of expression. Her control and understanding of her character Maya is what hinges the entire project together and she will be deserving of an Oscar if they decide to reward this more subtle performance. Besides her the whole cast of newcomers and familiar faces bring an incredibly authentic experience to life based on the diverse points of view, beliefs, and personalities. Some stand outs should be mentioned, such as Jason Clarke as a closed off and desensitized interrogator who you wouldn’t know to be a PhD earned charming fellow if only going by his tactics towards terrorists. Mark Strong as always delivers a solid performance as a CIA overseer, especially when he barrages his staff with highly vocalized disagreement. And Kathryn Bigelow repeats a Hurt Locker trend of introducing familiar faces in tiny roles, including Chris Pratt (“Parks and Rec”), Joel Edgerton (Warrior), John Barrowman (“Doctor Who”), Mark Duplass (Safety Not Guaranteed), and James Gandolfini (“The Sopranos”) all of whom bring their individual charm to essential moments. When the cast has such a great script and a greatly experienced director guiding the project there is never a surprise that they will deliver solid performances.


Should Zero Dark Thirty have been made so quickly before the dust has truly settled on such an important event in modern history? That’s a question that will be answered as time goes along but it has nothing to do with the credibility of the team behind the project who made it a truly riveting thriller. Not once will you look at your watch through this in depth and deeply personal manhunt that lasts over a decade in cinema time but well over two hours of your time. The details, the people, and the process all seem incredibly authentic and its tension high points are incredibly nerve-racking. It seems Mark Boal’s screenwriting is highly understood by director Kathryn Bigelow and together it seems they can create great movie experiences that not only grab your attention as a viewer looking for entertainment but they also grab your brain as a complex, living human soul. Perhaps it isn’t exactly on par with The Hurt Locker but Zero Dark Thirty is certainly a captivating and fully encompassing adult drama that should be appreciated for its highly technical and deeply personal delivery.

Grade: A-

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