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Movie Breakdown: Zero Dark Thirty (Noah)

January 7, 2013


People are doing traditional-style reviews all over the web, so we decided to try something different.  In each “breakdown” we’ll take a look at what a film’s marketing lead us to believe, how the movie actually played, and then what we learned from it all.  Read on!

The Impression:

My love of Kathryn Bigelow is based almost entirely on my unadulterated, teenage obsession with both Point Break and the sadly underrated and under-seen Strange Days. I can’t imagine that prepares me whatsoever for a procedural drama about the hunting and killing of one of the world’s most notorious terrorists.

The Reality:

Zero Dark Thirty is a lot of things. It is a methodically paced procedural. It is a character study of one woman’s obsession. It is a showcase for the work of Jessica Chastain and a whole host of spot-on character actors. It is a subdued, yet thrilling action film that focuses more on the chase than the outcome. It is gripping and visceral and is somehow able to wring absolute tension out of moments of time that have already run their course across the seething world of media. It is also, from start to finish, intentionally or not, an extremely sad film. War, be it the frontlines or the dark corridors, is hell, and though Bigelow is too talented a director to actually scream that in your face, there isn’t a moment in the movie – from the thirty minutes of torture that start the film to the final scene of Maya’s tear-streaked face – that doesn’t broadcast, loud and clear, the horrible effects of our more and more war-like society. It is the artful and near perfectly edited summation of 12 years of intense effort.

Chastain’s performance as the hyper-driven CIA agent Maya caught me off guard at first. I was expecting icy cold from the get-go, but Chastain plays early Maya as a sorority girl-gone military – texting another agent on the verge of meeting with a potential source “Cool!” – but Maya is only a 20-something when she’s shipped to Pakistan to start hunting the upper echelons of Al Qaeda. At one point late in the film James Gandolfini’s C.I.A. Director asks Maya how long she’s been in the C.I.A. (12 years) and if she’s ever done anything else but hunt Osama. With an almost shrill desperation, Maya says, “No, I’ve never done anything else.” Osama and his death and all the death he’s caused are all Maya knows and as Chastain plays her she carries the weight of that responsibility squarely on her own shoulders. If anything, Zero Dark Thirty is the story of a kid thrust in to an awful and enormous situation, and every it takes and everything that must be sacrificed to survive.

Zero Dark Thirty is a lot of things, what it is not, in any way (much to the chagrin of the controversy hawks that circle this here internet) is an approving nod towards torture or killing. Bigelow paints in tiny subtle strokes here, giving everything multiple shades of meaning and understanding and for every violent act on either side of the War on Terrorism it feels as if every facet of the argument is peered at. Don’t let the media trick you in to thinking that this very reasonable, amazing film is anything less than that.

The Lesson:

Zero Dark Thirty deserves the Best Picture Oscar. It won’t win though, and that right there is sad.

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