Jessica Chastain Takes Charge in the Taut, Stark and Unconventional Zero Dark Thirty

Posted: December 27, 2012 by Podwits Administrator in Film, Film Review
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Review by Luke Whitmire

Twenty five years ago in the genesis of her career, a young Kathryn Bigelow was a protege to a high caliber filmmaker (James Cameron), and she soon became a great visionary for directing big-budget action films. She started her career as a filmmaker whose work consisted only in the artifice realm. Her first big studio film was the heart-pumping Point Break that solidified her as a prolific artist who could devise a compelling and provocative story. What was so alluring about her new existence in the realm of Hollywood was the fact that she was a woman who had a zeal and a creative eye for high-octane, big spectacle cinema. Bigelow soon joined the ranks of other big Hollywood male directors.
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If there’s specific resistance to women making movies, I just choose to ignore that as an obstacle for two reasons: I can’t change my gender, and I refuse to stop making movies. It’s irrelevant who or what directed a movie, the important thing is that you either respond to it or you don’t. There should be more women directing; I think there’s just not the awareness that it’s really possible. It is.”
                            -Kathryn Bigelow
In 2009 Bigelow’s  The Hurt Locker won Best Picture and she became the first woman to win the Academy Award for Best Director, the Directors Guild of America Award for Outstanding Directing, the BAFTA Award for Best Direction, and the Critics’ Choice Award for Best Director. She also became the first woman to win the Saturn Award for Best Director in 1995 for Strange Days. In 2010 she was honored to be on the Time’s 100 list of most influential people of the year.
Bigelow really electrified audiences and critics with The Hurt Locker, an American military war film about a three-man explosive ordinance (bomb) disposal team during the Iraq war. The film would be hailed by the critical elite as the best action film of 2009 and the best war film of the decade for its intelligence, testosterone-fueled action, well structured suspense and the complex visceral projection of the protagonist. We see a different kind of hero, not a hero in the conventional sense. Instead of hyperbole violence, frenetic action scenes and glorified speeches, we get authentic characters with real emotion and heart. Bigelow establishes characters who the audience can relate with. The Hurt Locker turned Bigelow into a new kind of action director, a director who defied a genre.
Now with Zero Dark Thirty, Bigelow has completely stripped all artifice from her style, and has molded a film from a procedural approach. Her approach feels unvarnished, accurate and has an integrity that is uncompromising. It delivers a wonderful visceral experience without bending to Hollywood convention. Again, we have characters and situations that are credible and authentic. Not once does Bigelow allow the story to fall into the Hollywood tropes of an ostentatious spectacle. This is not your typical slam-bang action movie. Bigelow formulates a thoughtful build-up that leads to a masterful and thrilling climax.
The film begins with a dark screen and we listen to panic of radio transmissions and phone calls from the 9/11 terrorist attack in 2001. Bigelow saturates us with a stark reminder of the horror that started it all. We are immediately immersed  into this new threat that has held this generation in its grip for over ten years now.
Right after the bleak opening we jump right into an interrogation sequence in which we are introduced to our female protagonist, Maya (Jessica Chastain), a CIA analyst. Chastain has had an impressive film career the last two years, but her work in this film is captivating and unadorned. She is an analyst first, with no outside relationships. Also, she is not developed as this hyper-masculine, action heroin type figure. Maya is smart, and she’s not out there going against the system as Hollywood loves to portray women protagonist. She is dedicated and the faction of people helping her are just as smart and as dedicated.
With a running time of two-and-a-half hours, Zero Dark Thirty doesn’t side with either political party. We don’t hear anything about George Bush, the Iraq War or the Obama administration. Even Obama’s announcement of killing Osama Bin Ladan is eliminated. The only time the film gets a little political is Obama is seen and heard on TV espousing that torture is wrong and he doesn’t condone it. Is torture justifiable when it gets results? This is the only time the film comes close to politicizing. Heavy political posturing doesn’t weave through the fabric of the film. Instead, Bigelow gives us a more clinical and apolitical view of ten arduous years of tracking the worlds most viscous murderer. Bigelow uses writer, Mark Boal -who also won an Oscar for his work on The Hurt Locker– to devise a provocative and deep examination of the laboriousness and frustration of each stage of the operation. Boal’s screenplay is a more journalistic structure that displays rhythms of richness and narrative clarity.
Everything leads to a white-knuckle climax on Bin Ladan’s Pakistani compound that took place on May 2nd, 2011; a fascinating build-up to a night-vision sweep by the Seal Team Six. It truly is a virtuoso climatic sequence that’s thoroughly gripping.
All the technical contributions are used brilliantly to help propel the story to the great heights of verisimilitude. Greig Fraser’s cinematography adds immensely to the psychological depth.
Overall the film belongs to Jessica Chastain. She portrays Maya with intelligence- we follow Maya as she hunts Bin Laden across international borders using interrogation and torture. Though her character is stripped down with no arc, psychological details or character inflections, she still gives a compelling, understated performance that has a gravitational
pull. Chastain creates a character that is indelible, imposing and deeply felt.
The pace of Zero Dark Thirty can be a bit convoluted at times, because of all the names in the al-Qaeda organization, not to mention all the black-site locations where all these events are taking place, but seeing Chastain’s Maya motivated and driven character makes it worthwhile. Maya is a hard-boiled woman.
Can the war on terror be fought without brutal tactics? And now that Osama Bin Laden is dead, is the war on terror coming to a close? These are some of the questions that permeate the film. Zero Dark Thirty accentuates the deadly obsession created in wartime involving intelligence gathering, subterfuge, shady tactics, and misinformation. Bigelow has structured an alarming tale about how deeply an obsession can distort an individual, and how far we’re willing to go and fight for the illusion of perpetual safety.
Bottom Line:
  Zero Dark Thirty is densely detailed, technically exciting and thematically poignant. Kathryn Bigelow out does herself again with devising the greatest manhunt movie ever made. A cinema experience thats not perfunctory in any way.
* * * * *
5 out of 5 stars
Rated R for strong language and violence

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