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Zero Dark Thirty Movie Review

Zero Dark Thirty (2012) movie poster Zero Dark Thirty

Theatrical Release: December 19, 2012 / Running Time: 157 Minutes / Rating: R

Director: Kathryn Bigelow / Writer: Mark Boal

Cast: Jessica Chastain (Maya), Jason Clarke (Dan), Joel Edgerton (Patrick - Squadron Team Leader), Jennifer Ehle (Jessica), Mark Strong (George), Kyle Chandler (Joseph Bradley), Edgar Ramirez (Larry from Ground Branch), James Gandolfini (C.I.A. Director), Chris Pratt (Justin - DEVGRU), Callan Mulvey (Saber - DEVGRU), Fares Fares (Hakim), Reda Kateb (Ammar), Harold Perrineau (Jack), Stephen Dillane (National Security Advisor)

Zero Dark Thirty will come to home video on March 19th. Read the press release.
Preorder Zero Dark Thirty from Amazon.com: Blu-ray + DVD + UltraViolet DVD + UltraViolet

It usually isn't hard to tell when filmmakers will indefinitely be considered Hollywood's elite talent and when the stars simply align for a filmmaker to deliver excellence that receives recognition of the highest order. The former class consists of directors whose success is long in the making and whose every release warrants serious attention and awards consideration:
Spielberg, Tarantino, Scorsese, the Coen Brothers, David Fincher, Paul Thomas Anderson. Most of them had to pay their dues before breaking into those ranks, but all of them enjoy secure status unlikely to disappear anytime soon.

Then there are those directors who have made a big splash once but do not appear likely to do so again on a regular basis or anytime soon. This class would seem to include Dances with Wolves' Kevin Costner, Crash's Paul Haggis, The Artist's Michel Hazanavicius, and Precious' Lee Daniels. I expected the two winners of the Best Director Oscar prior to Hazanavicius to also go this route, but both The King's Speech helmer Tom Hooper and The Hurt Locker's Kathryn Bigelow chose their follow-up projects wisely, directing two of the holiday season's most buzzed about films, each of which yesterday received a number of Academy Award nominations including one for Best Picture.

In one of the few omissions certain to shock anyone who had been following this year's Oscar race, Bigelow, expected to be one of the frontrunners for Best Director, did not receive a nomination in that category (nor did Argo's Ben Affleck, clearing the way for Lincoln to win Steven Spielberg his third directing Oscar). A couple of months ago, I could have seen Bigelow, the only female to ever win the Best Director Oscar, being excluded. After all, she has been directing films for thirty years and The Hurt Locker was her only one to win any major accolades. People like Point Break, but most of her other films (e.g. Blue Steel, K-19: The Widowmaker) are kind of obscure and have middling reputations, with few advocates encouraging you to discover them.

"Zero Dark Thirty" stars Jessica Chastain as Maya, a CIA officer devoted to finding Osama bin Laden.

True, Bigelow had lined up attention-grabbing subject matter -- the CIA's search for Osama bin Laden -- made a great deal more relevant and fascinating by the May 2011 finding and killing of the terrorist leader. She also had Oscar-winning Hurt Locker screenwriter/producer Mark Boal staying by her side. Still, it just seemed a little too easy for Bigelow and Boal to repeat their success with another unflinching tale of modern warfare when such success eludes the vast majority of filmmakers.

And yet, regardless of Bigelow's Oscar snub, Zero Dark Thirty has become one of the best-reviewed films of 2012, with near-unanimous raves supplying even more enthusiasm than the high marks given Hurt Locker. Bigelow and Boal have done it again and have even handily bested their fine previous effort with a masterful bit of docudrama worthy of the historical significance it will forever hold.
There is no doubt that this film -- more than any television documentary, firsthand memoir, or unclassified case folder -- will stand as the definitive account of essentially the gripping final chapter in the tale of September 11th.

Zero opens with the audio of actual 911 phone calls from one of the deadliest days in American history, the Tuesday morning when terrorists hijacked commercial airplanes and crashed them into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a Pennsylvania field. As we know, Al-Qaeda, the terrorist organization founded by bin Laden in the late 1980s, claimed responsibility for those unconscionable attacks primarily against civilians, an explanation accepted by all but the persistently vocal conspiracy theorist demographic. But while the hijackers themselves perished on 9/11 and some of their conspirators were caught, bin Laden, the mastermind and bankroll of the entire irrational operation, remained at large in hiding at an undetermined location beyond the reach of justice.

The film jumps ahead two years to find CIA officer Maya (Jessica Chastain) uncomfortably witnessing and aiding a colleague (Jason Clarke) performing so-called "enhanced interrogation techniques" on a detainee (Reda Kateb) in an effort to identify and locate some of his collaborators in the wide-reaching network of terror. Maya is determined to find bin Laden, a job to which she devotes herself and all of her time. It is a very slow and costly mission with long odds and many limitations. Years are spent just trying to establish someone believed to have had post-9/11 contact with bin Laden.

Clearly, Zero Dark Thirty is thoroughly researched, providing authenticity and attention to detail that simply can't be faked. Though the end credits contain a standard disclaimer about dramatization and the film has even inspired an official statement from the CIA regarding its fictions (or rather distillations), this is the same production that elicited investigation into whether advisors went too far in sharing classified information. It seems like it shouldn't be hard to just present the facts in the most honest and accurate way possible, but so few movies take this route, believing instead that invention and simplification are essential to dramatic stimulation. Zero proves otherwise, committing to seemingly documented or definite information with a passion that perhaps hasn't been seen since Paul Greengrass' United 93.

The Navy SEAL raid of Osama bin Laden's Pakistan compound makes for a small but integral part of the film. Mark Strong is one of numerous veteran actors disappearing in their roles as government officials involved in the search for bin Laden.

Though it avoids casting big movie stars who no doubt would have been interested, Bigelow's film doesn't rely as heavily on unfamiliar actors. Zero is full of fine craftsmen like Kyle Chandler, Mark Strong, Joel Edgerton, James Gandolfini, Mark Duplass, Harold Perrineau, Stephen Dillane, and Clarke making the most of limited screentime and convincing you that their characters are invested in this cause but smart enough to be skeptical. Chastain, meanwhile, is the glue holding it all together. Her breakout 2011, which saw her leaving obscurity behind to suddenly appear in five of the year's most acclaimed dramas, was no fluke. She is unmistakably qualified for the heavy lifting the film has her do, but also still hungry and inexperienced enough not to phone in the performance or give us something we've already seen.

Like The Hurt Locker, this film deftly and admirably arrives sans agenda or glaring political bias. It's not out to sanctify President Obama (who is largely unseen and barely mentioned), to wag its finger at his predecessor, or to simply celebrate the CIA and Navy SEALs for their great bravery. At all times, the film seems to say, "These are things that have happened in our world over the past eleven years." And though its initial audience will have lived through all of it, it is fascinating to see it presented so candidly and compellingly. By the time the big final raid arrives, we know what will happen, but hearts pound and fists clench as we see it brought to life in the darkness and night vision that those on this brazen unprecedented mission truly experienced.

In dramatizing events that occurred just twenty months ago, you expect opportunism and sensationalism. Instead, there is nobility and exhilaration to this unfailingly engaging film. That Boal and Bigelow have been able to produce something so moving and meaningful without much perspective and with just one prior collaboration of note is nothing short of astonishing. It turns out some current events require no time to process them and shape them into outstanding cinema of remarkable immediacy.

It looks like Kathryn Bigelow is staying put among the industry's top talent.

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Related Reviews:
From Director Kathryn Bigelow and Screenwriter Mark Boal: The Hurt Locker
New In Theaters: Gangster Squad | New On Disc: Seal Team Six: The Raid on Osama Bin Laden The Other Dream Team
2012 Oscar Best Picture Nominees: Django Unchained Life of Pi Beasts of the Southern Wild
Jessica Chastain: The Help The Tree of Life Lawless Take Shelter Coriolanus Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted
Mark Strong: Body of Lies | James Gandolfini: Welcome to the Rileys | Kyle Chandler: Early Edition: The First Season
Joel Edgerton: Animal Kingdom | Chris Pratt: Moneyball | Edgar Ramirez: Vantage Point | Jennifer Ehle: Contagion
Zodiac Traffic Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close Forrest Gump

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Reviewed January 11, 2013.

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