Saturday 2 February 2013

Review: Zero Dark Thirty

Year: 2012 (UK Release 2013)
Director: Kathryn Bigelow 
Screenplay: Marc Boal
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Chris Pratt, Edgar Ramirez, James Gandolfini, Jason Clarke, Jennifer Ehle, Joel Edgerton, Kyle Chandler, Mark Strong

Synopsis is here

NOTE: I do not explicitly mention the finer details of the films plot and it's conclusion, the review does talk about the latter moments of the film.

A lot about how I feel about Zero Dark Thirty evolves around how I took it's final moments. Far from being the sensationalized climax that many would think, Zero Dark Thirty's muted raid and aftermath and near anguished final shot do not claim any relief in my eyes. Quite the opposite when placed in consideration of the two hours that came before it. We see a release of sorts but little comfort. Many will argue this point, but the power of Bigelow's film lies with the viewer themselves. The film is so matter of fact, that it takes the form of whomever the viewer is. For me, the film captures something that many wish to forget, that the search for Bin Laden and so called the war on terror may become one of the darkest moments in American History.

A precise and upfront procedural, Kathryn Bigelow's film is the perfect foil for her previous war film The Hurt Locker (2008). Whereas the drug of choice for Jeremy Renner's character was disarming bombs and the danger it entailed, here we follow Maya (played with an unwavering intensity by Jessica Chastain); a no nonsense CIA agent whom is attracted to little more than the task at hand. When asked what else she has done for the CIA in the decade long search for Bin Laden, her response is that she has nothing. Like a Michael Mann film, the job is everything to Maya. She is the "man who does work". It's clear that the act of water-boarding repulses her, but this is the job and morals only seem to get in the way. 

This is not me condoning what I saw. It's also not the film stating that such torture gains results (it doesn't, in fact it only leads to more dead ends). But the films matter-of-fact tone is what makes the film such a difficult watch. The events are taken as is and never glorified. Characters leave the work they do, to do something "normal". What does that suggest? To me it suggests that what they are doing is not working. Such scenes only highlight the ugliness and desperation that is running through the compound. 

The film is a fractured one, both in narrative and moral compass. Along with torturing and wiretaps,  we witness scenes in which Arabs can be brought off with fast cars for information (as long as nothing comes back to them), while true legitimate leads can be turned (or double bluffing) with dangerous results. Nothing is clear except Maya's assertiveness which never wavers over the films ten year time frame. Bigelow and Boal's film eschew more typical plotting, deciding more upon viewing the search as a series of vignettes. Bigelow punctuates some of episodes with amazingly terse set pieces with the tension cranked up to the hilt. By the time we get to the films 18 minute climax (which held a similar tone to Mann's final sequence in Miami Vice), we're primed. I may know the ending, but I found myself riveted at how the incident would occur.  This is where the films muted, realistic approach to proceedings is at its most effective, displaying the finalisation of the search, not as a victory but as an uneasy closure. 

Bringing us back to the films lingering final moments, where it all comes to a head for this character. After all the time we've spent with Maya, the choices she's made, and the effect her decisiveness has had on this situation, it is only now everything "comes together". While The Hurt Locker dealt with the "warriors", here we deal with the "planners". It's telling that Bigelow has found a female protagonist for this role. While similar to many of her previous leads, the simple choice of gender creates another dynamic. We notice how she's positioned in rooms, her relationships with others (including other women) and areas of her life that have been given up for the task at hand. Like The Hurt Locker, we now notice what the drug of war takes away. Bigelow has spent her career taking pieces of her characters souls with varying degrees of success. Here in Zero Dark Thirty we see Kathryn Bigelow at her best, taking away a part of human essence in one of the most intellectually taxing American films of the last decade. Expect no catharsis.