Saturday, January 5, 2013

"Zero Dark Thirty"

 3.5 / 5 

About 20 months passed between a history-altering event with profound political consequences and the release of an electrifying thriller about an investigation that led to a hated man's downfall.  The year was 1976, and less than two years earlier, Richard Nixon resigned the presidency, followed by the book and movie All the President's Men.

That earlier film is worth mentioning, because it took a new story still fresh in the memory and made it into a taut, intelligent, gripping thriller that felt continually exciting but also knew how to pare its story to the barest of essentials.

Zero Dark Thirty is good, but it's not in the same league as All the President's Men, which is mostly the result of a rambling, unfocused screenplay that only comes into jarring, truly riveting focus in the final 45 minutes -- although it's a movie that bills itself as being about "the greatest manhunt in history," which is how it terms the search for Osama bin Laden, the problem is that hunt goes on for nearly a decade before reaching resolution.

The first two hours of Zero Dark Thirty contain a lot of characters we are apparently supposed to know by sight, and makes a lot of oblique references to places, names and situations that I'm guessing most people (certainly me) have long since forgotten.

That makes it confusing and overloaded, but not uninteresting.  It's just that, like this year's other big historical epic LincolnZero Dark Thirty assumes we are much more well-versed in the subject than we likely actually are.  Back to All the President's Men for a moment: Perhaps it was pure serendipity that Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein spent no small part of the movie explaining the story to their editors, in the process reminding the audience of who did what to whom and (hypothetically, at least) why.  Zero Dark Thirty doesn't have that luxury.

Nor is it able to create particularly vivid characters.  Most are on screen for a relatively short time -- there must be three or four dozen speaking roles.  That massive scale and timeframe works against the film when it comes to creating a genuinely captivating movie experience.

This is neither a documentary nor a fictionalized account -- it wants to be vivid and faithful to the events that transpired, making it at times feel much like a high-quality dramatic re-enactment.  And as such, when dedicated CIA agent Maya, played by Jessica Chastain, finally deduces bin Laden's most likely location, a movie that had been interesting in fits and starts finally takes hold and shows us a gripping, crackling re-enactment of what happened that night in 2011.

Everyone who steps foot in the movie theater knows the outcome, and Zero Dark Thirty doesn't pretend it's going to leave us guessing in the tradition of a standard movie thriller.  Here, it's all about the technical prowess of the filmmakers, and Kathryn Bigelow proves again that she's impeccable when it comes to making a movie look and sound great.

Yet, at a key moment (and out of necessity given her character's professional role), the film's finale relegates Chastain to the role of worried heroine.  She can only stand by while her men go out to fight, biting her nails and casting worried glances at a screen, completely helpless.  Meanwhile, for about the third time in Zero Dark Thirty, the audience needs to learn a new set of characters -- the SEAL team who conducted the raid.

This isn't as much an actual problem as it is an unfortunate outcome of the choices the filmmakers made in telling this story without a definitive perspective.  Zero Dark Thirty seems on the surface to be Maya's story, but then shifts focus to her equally committed and horribly ill-fated colleague (Jennifer Ehle)?  Earlier, it has spent an awful lot of time exposing us to CIA torturer (Jason Clarke) whose techniques are effective but ignite a firestorm of controversy -- he seems equally important to the story until he casually announces he's had enough and mostly disappears. We also get to know a couple of the SEALs (Chris Pratt and Joel Edgerton) who lead the raid -- are we supposed to relate to them?  It's lack of perspective (or, perhaps, the decision to make them all important characters) that dogs Zero Dark Thirty through to the end.

Directed by Kathryn Bigelow, Zero Dark Thirty is admirable.  It's a competent, sometimes engrossing and very, very long movie made from inherently flawed script.  It's technically flawless, admirably attention-getting, and does shed some light on an incident that, for most of us, remains swathed in mystery.  But it wants so much to be capital-I important that it forgets to be capital-T thrilling.

Viewed January 4, 2013 at ArcLight Hollywood


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