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Caleb Masters

Zero Dark Thirty Brings The Pulse Pounding History To The Big Screen

Jan 22, 2013

On May 2, 2011 President Barrack Obama issued an executive order to raid a compound which housed the terrorist Osama Bin Laden. Zero Dark Thirty is Academy Award winning director Kathryn Bigelow’s retelling of the recent historical event for America's fight against al-Qaeda. Because the incident happened so recently there has been a fair amount of speculation about the reliability of the story which has raised quite a controversy among the CIA, the Military, and now the general public. The movie is claiming to be one of the most accurate historical films out there and is taking pride in its "non-Hollywood" approach to the execution, but the question that has to be on film-goers minds is whether or not this gritty retelling can take the cake as one of 2012's best films. Is Zero Dark Thirty one of the greats of historical drama or will the movie simply be remembered for the controversial fanfare?

Zero Dark Thirty opens with the main character Maya’s (Jessica Chastain) first interrogation. Much like most of the audience Maya seems a bit disgusted and taken aback by Ammar, the man her and her team are questioning. After finally getting a lead from the Ammar the team begins looking at the lead from several different angles in an attempt to find Osama Bin Laden. The movie unfolds in a series of episodes that follow the eight year investigation of the location of Bin Laden. Each of these segments tells a self-contained story that also builds toward the eventual invasion of the compound at the end of the film.

The story is unlike what you would expect from a military operation centered tale as this movie tells the story pretty straight without too much dramatization. The writers were clearly more focused on maintaining a realistic feel than they were creating a dramatic tone. The movie comes across incredibly dry and to the point which is both its greatest strength and weakness. This cut and dry feel certainly makes the events seem like they really happened as portrayed which is excellent and rare in any movie that is retelling history, but at 157 minutes this movie slows to a painfully uneven and slowly crawling pace until the final segment of the movie.

While the buildup is nothing particularly exciting, the raid on the Pakistani compound at the end of the movie is nothing short of stunning and exceptional. The sequence is engrossing and feels less Hollywood and more military demonstration with its very quiet yet pulse pounding action that puts us behind the guns of the Navy Seals that were moving in on the action. There are very few actual shots fired or explosives detonated, but Bigelow manages to make every movement and action and intense and effective. It's certainly anyone's guess as to whether or not the raid happened in the way Zero Dark Thirty portrayed it, but thanks to the outstanding direction in these scenes I may have completely forgotten I was watching a movie.

Jessica Chastain has really had some big breakout years in 2011 and 2012 with The Help, The Tree of Life, and Take Shelter. Chastain is definitely still on a roll with Zero Dark Thirty as her performance brings out a tougher and edgier actress than we've seen in the last few years. The military raid may be excellent, but if Zero Dark Thirty should be remembered for anything it should be Chastain's marvelous performance. Her character Maya is incredibly obsessive and reckless, but you can't help but root for dedication and conviction to complete her mission by any means necessary. The evolution of Maya over her eight year pursuit of Bin Laden is both tragic and admirable as she slowly loses who she was before her work at the CIA the closer she gets to accomplishing her task. There are several other characters in the movie, but sadly they really never amount to anything other than propelling the plot forward which leaves the cast a bit uneven with an exceptional lead with no real support.

Outside of Chastain's performance this movie relied almost completely on Kathryn Bigelow's direction which is definitely one of a kind. In many ways Bigelow succeeded in replicating her work on 2009's The Hurt Locker, but it came with flaws and all. I find her vision to be inventive, but ultimately too cut and dry to leave much emotional impact. I love the way the direction gives us a down to earth and less dramatized take on history, but the lack of characterization left me feeling like this movie was hollow with very little to keep me invested for the overly long run time. By the time I reached the fantastic final act of the movie I had almost given up on caring why any of these events even mattered.

After leaving the theater I had a hard time understanding all the controversy because of what little the movie accomplished. The movie couldn't decide when it wanted move because of its episodic story structure and it gave very little human connection to motivate you to care. Once the movie gets to the actual attack on the compound this movie becomes one of the most intense and innovative films of the year that is led by Chastain's Oscar worthy performance. Zero Dark Thirty is definitely one of a kind and is a must see for those of you who are interested in historical dramas, but for everyone else this is a movie that is probably better left to the small screen when the movie hits home video.

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