Oscar Fodder: Mini Reviews – Zero Dark Thirty

zero darkI said on this very blog just a few weeks ago that the trailers for this film looked amazing and that January 31st (release date) couldn’t come soon enough. So suffice to say I went into the theatre quite a few hours ago (it is quite a long film – as are most of the Oscar contenders) with very high expectations. I also went in with more background knowledge about the film than I would normally have – both the subject matter (the search and capture of Osama Bin Laden – anyone who has read a paper/watched the news regularly over the past decade knows the story) and the controversy surrounding the film itself and whether it does or doesn’t promote torture of detainees. But as I sat down I tried to clear away all of that and just concentrate on the film unfolding in front of me. And what a film it was.

I will say now that Kathryn Bigelow has been robbed, by the torture controversy without a shadow of a doubt, of an Oscar nomination for Best Director here. She did an amazing job, with a fantastic and deeply researched script by Mark Boal, and managed to cram ten years worth of investigations, leads, terrorist attacks and politics into 157 compelling minutes of cinema. Others have described it as almost like watching a documentary – and it really is. Both through keeping the focus solely on the investigation and not getting into distracting back story of the main players (especially main character – CIA analyst/expert Maia (Jessica Chastain)), but also through using a very straight forward, parred down filming technique. There were no flashy cinematographer tricks at work here, no rousing score (that I noticed anyway) and no artificial drama. This was straight down the line simple story telling. How much of that story is true, of course, is a question for another forum – but Boal and Bigelow apparently worked very closely with the CIA when writing the script.

The story uses Chastain’s character as the audience’s focus throughout the film – and without her we would have been confused by a myriad of faces and places and names. But she guides us – and the CIA it would appear – through the ten years the movie spans, and Chastain does a fantastic job. Some have said she may not win the Oscar as she doesn’t get to be too ‘dramatic’ here – she doesn’t yell and scream and get emotional all the time – she does just once or twice and to tremendous effect. And that is what you would expect – I doubt fits of hysterics would get you far in the male dominated CIA (though it seems to work for Homeland’s Carrie Mathieson…). And she isn’t on her own. The cast here is both large (120 speaking parts) and stellar. Mark Strong impresses as a senior CIA man, Jason Clarke is simply excellent as an interrogator, James Gandolfini has a tiny but influential role as the head of the CIA and Joel Edgerton and Chris Pratt brought life to the Navy SEALS in the last thirty minutes. Like Lincoln – you kind of wished they were on screen for longer, but due to the nature of the narrative it simply wasn’t possible.

But to review this and not talk about the torture issue would be remiss of me. Obviously with a background in human rights law I have fairly strong views on torture. But this film does not. It has been accused of advocating torture as a means of obtaining necessary information from detainees – and of saying that torture of al-Qaeda operatives directly led to the capture and killing of Bin Laden. Yes, the narrative portrayed here did link information from detainees with the eventual finding of Bin Laden – but it doesn’t come down one way or the other on whether this was right or wrong. It did what any self-respecting film (and news outlet, though few do these days…) should do – it lets its audience take the issue away and ponder it themselves. It doesn’t make it easy for you by telling you how to think. And that is an admirable and brave thing. And the fact that Bigelow is being punished for that does make me angry. And you won’t like me when I’m angry.

So, what would I rate this? Initially, I was thinking 4.5. But after pondering further, factoring in my extremely high expectations and noting again Bigelow’s restrained and impressive direction – I find nothing to fault here. This is a must see film, and could be my film of the year.

M&Ms from me: 5

Oscars it should win: Best Director (though it can’t as she wasn’t even nominated – shame on you Academy) Best Film & Best Actress (I will say for sure on Sunday after seeing main rival Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook).

Oscars it will win: None. And for another year in a row, the Oscars will make me grumpy. But as this film reminded me, there are far worse things in the world than being grumpy at the Oscars 😉

(Note: I am so tempted to wait 8 minutes so I can post this at exactly Zero Dark Thirty (12.30), but I am not THAT much of a geek. Honest…)

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One thought on “Oscar Fodder: Mini Reviews – Zero Dark Thirty

  1. Pingback: Best on the Screen and Box: 2013 | andstufflikethis

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