Let me be honest. That box sucks. This movie doesn't.
Maya: Jessica Chastain Dan: Jason Clarke Joseph Bradley: Kyle Chandler Leon Panetta: James Gandolfini Patrick: Joel Edgerton Jessica: Jennifer Ehle George: Mark Strong Anmar: Reda Kateb Justin: Chris Pratt Jared: Taylor Kinney Steve: Mark Duplass Larry: Édgar Ramírez
Columbia Pictures presents a film written by Mark Boal and directed by Kathryn Bigelow. Rated R for strong violence including brutal disturbing images, and for language. Running Time: 2 hours, 37 minutes Release Date: December 19, 2012 (Limited)
It was just a dull Sunday night at home in front of the computer and TV. I had been home from work for a few hours and randomly logged into my Facebook account. An old friend who works in TV news had just recently posted that he'd caught wind of a major Presidential announcement, coming as soon as in the next twenty or thirty minutes. In the hour and a half or so between seeing that post and the actual announcement, word spread all over the country like wildfire. Television stations broke in with their top reporters. A massive "USA!" chant began to break out at a nationally televised Phillies-Mets game. At a WWE event, champion John Cena cut his show-ending celebration short to inform the audience of what was going on. Once President Barack Obama made the slow walk to a podium and television camera set-up at the White House, it only took him twelve seconds to confirm the speculations: "Good evening. Tonight, I can report to the American people and to the world the United States has conducted an operation that killed Osama bin Laden, leader of al-Qaeda."
It was only a matter of time before the events were depicted on the silver screen in one form or another, and less than two years later, we are presented with Kathryn Bigelow's phenomenal Zero Dark Thirty, the most gripping drama I have seen in years. Is that because the film's villain has already been established before the previews even start? Perhaps, but that doesn't dictate the direction that Bigelow chose to take this film. As someone who personally doesn't sit on any particular side of the political fence, I was pleased to see Zero Dark Thirty do the same. This isn't a movie about Democrats or Republicans, Bush or Obama. It's not about passing judgment on some of the tactics the U.S. may have used and what was right or wrong. It is a presentation of a tumultuous decade in American history, mostly told through the eyes of one woman in the middle of just about all of it.
Jessica Chastain made a big splash last year with terrific work in movies like The Help and Take Shelter, but her performance as Maya will be tough to top. We know nothing of her background when we first meet her in an undisclosed location, witness to a first-hand interrogation of a terrorist (Kateb) with ties to al-Qaeda. We know nothing of her new colleague Dan (Clarke) either, except that, "When you lie to me, I hurt you." These scenes are uncomfortable, and obviously they are meant to be, but they are done as tastefully as possible. I don't think you should expect to see the type of brutality you would in a Saw movie, for example, despite the fact that the MPAA didn't label those as having "Brutal Disturbing Images".
With Chastain and Clarke leading the charge of top-shelf performances, there's not much time to learn their background. We know what we need to know about them and their colleagues. We know that none of these people are going to willingly put themselves in the middle of a war zone for personal gain. They are attempting to stop as many acts of terrorism as they can. To some, that doesn't necessarily place bin Laden as the primary target. Some believed he may have already been dead or hiding in a cave on dialysis. Maya refuses to believe any of that. She has spent her entire professional life trying to hunt Osama bin Laden, obsessing over it in nearly every waking moment. Chastain reminds you of the feeling you had when you heard he was responsible for the September 11th attacks on America and keeps that feeling building inside of her for 157 minutes.
As an aside, as a firm believer that sometimes "less is more" in movies, I was skeptical at first of Zero Dark Thirty's lengthy run time. There's no need to be. A 2 1/2 hour movie hasn't moved this quickly since The Dark Knight. That especially goes for the film's final act, in which a group of "canaries" (U.S. Navy SEALs) are enlisted to carry out the execution on bin Laden. They're not even 100% sure he will be there. We all know he will be, but that doesn't make the raid on his compound any less thrilling. It takes a phenomenal director to take a story we know and still make you grip your armrest a little tighter as that story unfolds. Kathryn Bigelow does a masterful job of this, creating the suspense of being along for the ride with the "canaries" as they risk their lives to pull off as risky a mission as they'll ever face. Her name not being amongst the Best Director nominees is easily one of Oscar's biggest snubs this year. (Ben Affleck was able to work similar magic in Argo and was also inexplicably passed over by the Academy.)
There are so many different sides of the story leading up to the raid on the bin Laden "fortress" that Zero Dark Thirty surely won't be the only movie to be made on the subject. But it's going to be extremely difficult to top. Kathryn Bigelow and company have topped their effort from The Hurt Locker by placing you in the middle of one of the grandest manhunts in human history and not trying to pull you in any particular direction. The conviction and obsession that Jessica Chastain and her fellow actors use never make you question for a second why these people are sacrificing their personal lives for their cause. Zero Dark Thirty is that rare movie that I was ready to have another look at as soon as the credits began to roll.
The 411: Zero Dark Thirty is a gripping, polarizing story, woven throughout nearly a decade of the hunt for the man responsible for orchestrating one of the largest acts of terrorism in human history. Jessica Chastain carries the film on her back nearly from start to finish, with a performance that gets stronger throughout and should result in her carrying a gold statue home at the end of February. Featuring a final act that will make you hesitate to even blink, Zero Dark Thirty is undoubtedly one of the best motion pictures of 2012.