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Review: ‘Zero Dark Thirty’

Kathryn Bigelow delivers a gripping and tense film that leads us through the greatest manhunt in modern American history – the CIA’s search for Osama bin Laden. Check out the trailer here.

Bigelow (the first woman to win the Oscar for best director for “The Hurt Locker”) keeps the audience teetering between political shuffling and realistic action. It’s a good balance which generally does not grow too tiring in the two and a half hour film.

Obviously, a movie about Osama bin Laden requires a portrayal of the September 11 attacks in New York. But how does one handle such a topic? A barrage of disorienting shots across the city? A short, attaching narrative to a single New Yorker amidst the chaos? A faraway view of the plane crashes?

Bigelow chooses to let our memories paint part of the picture. 9/11 in "Zero Dark Thirty" is a blank screen and a series of sound bytes from the event -- a clever depiction that provides enough chaos to remind us of the event, but not to detract from the story at hand. And the sounds bring many of the visuals we associate with the attacks to mind.

After the 9/11 sound sequence, we open on a torture scene in a dark, dirty room of a standalone building. It is in this scene we are introduced to the film’s lead -- stubborn and sharp CIA agent, Maya (played by Jessica Chastain, who I definitely have a crush on now). Initially, she is finicky and soft as an agency newbie. That changes. Through the arduous task of hunting one of the most high-profile criminals in the world and making her 12-year career worthwhile, Maya grows coarse. It’s wonderful to watch.

Jessica Chastain as CIA agent Maya in "Zero Dark Thirty"

Maya is especially interesting and notable because she’s a strong, independent woman at the crux of the most important hunt in recent American history. And she is much like Bigelow, as she paves the way for her gender in her field. It's a great performance by Chastain.

Jennifer Ehle is another sturdy addition to the cast as CIA agent Jessica. She is one of Maya’s few supporting colleagues through most of the film.

The many torture scenes of the film have already received special attention from the public and critics. (My mentor, Beth Accomando, has a few thoughts and sources on the matter, and how Bigelow handles the subject of torture. See her review of this film here).

The tortures are not over-the-top. They are controlled and generally low key. The most prominent is our introductory scene. It is an intimate experience with the subject of torture. We stare into the captive’s beaten eyes, we see the stains where he has soiled himself, and we watch the water gargle from his mouth as he gasps for air. Regardless of legality or accuracy, we still get the experience.

There are discrepancies in regards to these scenes as the film claims to be based on first-hand accounts of the decade long inquest. Whether accurate or not, it is captivating. But we must ask how accurate a film should be if it leads with: “Based on first hand accounts of actual events.”

Lastly, -- the raid! It is epic in the tamest way possible. We have all heard and seen a lot of information on the raid of bin Laden’s compound. It dominated the news for weeks. And with this scene, we experience the event closer than ever. There isn’t any booming rock music or build up of ominous tones. It feels real and documentary-like, with very few elements: whispers, footsteps, small detinations, and muffled gunshots in conjunction with gritty camera filters. Nothing is over the top, and nothing is included that does not need to be.

SEAL team 6 outside the bin Laden compound in "Zero Dark Thirty"

I prepared myself for the moment when bin Laden gets taken out. I was open to artistic interpretation, per usual, but had to be more scrutinizing as this is a highly important event in recent history. I was not disappointed -- it’s smartly done. No grand finale music, cheers or hoo-rahs. And we do not get an up close look at bin Laden’s face – we get hints at it – the eye wound, long beard, lean nose. He is the driving force of the film and as soon as we finally have him in our sights, he’s gone.

"Zero Dark Thirty" is rated R for strong violence including brutal disturbing images, and for language.

Companion Viewing:

"Munich" (2005) -- another methodical man hunt

If you have not seen "Parks and Rec" (TV series), do yourself a favor and watch a few episodes (or at least clips of Andy Dwyer, played by Chris Pratt), then watch "Zero Dark Thirty" to enjoy the character change. In "Parks," Pratt plays an immensely dense and lovable oaf -- in, "Zero Dark Thirty," he is still a bit oaf-like, but he is also a trained killer.

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