Efficiently Epic

'Zero Dark Thirty' is an unsettling, provocative and engaging film

The controversial Zero Dark Thirty, director Kathryn Bigelow's excellently crafted version of the hunt for Osama bin Laden, has a bunch of politicians and CIA officials crying foul. This makes me think the movie must contain some harsh truths and grim realities about the war on terror.

It's virtually absent of politics, or any of that "America, fuck yeah!" nonsense. It gives a filmmaker's interpretation of the steps that were taken, and the deeds that were done, to rid the world of a true menace. Many of those deeds are done in a calm, calculated and perhaps even cold manner that is, at times, spooky to watch. The people depicted in this movie mean business, and will do whatever it takes to get a job done. That includes waterboarding and literally scaring the shit out of detainees.

The film starts with a black screen, and some terrifying messages left by 9/11 victims as they were close to death in the twin towers. The sequence definitely put me in that "OK, something needs to be done about this" mode that many were feeling on that day. It definitely sets the tone for the unsettling film that's about to happen.

We see Maya (Jessica Chastain) a new, determined CIA officer (apparently a composite character of actual people) on the bin Laden case, about to witness torture. Dan (Jason Clarke), another CIA agent, will use waterboarding, isolation boxes, dog collars and psychological mind games to try and draw some names out of a strong-willed detainee (a powerful Reda Kateb). He eventually gets a big one, and a long hunt that will see many casualties, including CIA agents, begins in earnest.

Is the movie "pro torture?" I would say most definitely not. Is it "anti-torture?" It isn't that either. The film is supposedly being investigated for using classified information about American interrogation tactics. What the film depicts seems like it could be pretty authentic. Thankfully, I am no expert on the matter.

The movie leaves it up to the viewer to decide whether these types of interrogation methods were necessary in the pursuit of bin Laden. But—and I want to make this perfectly clear—it is a brutal exercise that Bigelow shows here, unsettling in many ways.

Zero Dark Thirty clocks in at 157 minutes, with all but 40 of those devoted to Maya's behind-the-scenes, dogged pursuit of public enemy No. 1. The last 40 minutes completely switches gears, becoming an intense depiction of the Team Six mission that ended with "Geronimo." All 157 minutes are top-notch, provocative, incendiary filmmaking. Bigelow has most certainly topped herself, including her Oscar-winning effort, The Hurt Locker.

As for the raid itself, it's very dark and quiet. From the muffled "fwup, fwup, fwup" of the experimental helicopters (one of which crashed) as they swerve through mountain ranges, to the quick and decisive shots ending lives in that now very familiar white structure in Pakistan, it's all very precise and stealthy. The aspect of the raid that unsettled me the most was the way Navy SEALs are depicted quietly and invitingly calling out "Osama?" before they shoot him.

Chastain, in just a couple of years, has become one of the world's most dynamic, downright reliable actresses. From her Oscar-nominated turn in The Help to her beautiful supporting work in Tree of Life and Take Shelter, she is creating one memorable character after another. Maya is her crowning achievement, and should get her another Oscar nomination.

Clarke is eerily effective as an interrogation man who needs a break and heads back to Washington, D.C., for a desk job. Kyle Chandler is appropriately complicated as the CIA station chief in Islamabad, Joseph Bradley. Jennifer Ehle plays a strangely happy and charged-up CIA agent, who goes so far as to bake a cake for an interviewee. I know Bigelow and crew added some fiction to their story, but this seemed a little far-fetched. I was more convinced by the Maserati somebody got for an interview than I was by the cake baking.

As for the Team Six sequence, Joel Edgerton (Warrior) and Chris Pratt (TV's Parks and Recreation) are standouts. Pratt's character is actually seen listening to Tony Robbins as the helicopter approaches its final destination. He tells his comrades that he has plans for after the mission. Perhaps Bigelow is suggesting that the Pratt character is the Team Six member who eventually wrote the best selling No Easy Day.

Ultimately, Zero Dark Thirty is an epic film and efficient enough to be compared to the great films of Coppola, Scorsese and Kubrick. It's an important and engaging piece of work from a director who looks like she is just starting to hit her stride.

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