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Zero Dark Thirty Review: Unlike Anything You’ve Seen Before

Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty is unlike any movie I’ve seen before; a dense and sprawling espionage thriller that plays to no convention or cliché, nor takes any shortcuts even when tackling the story about one of the greatest manhunts in human history. There is no James Bond or Jason Bourne in the world of Zero Dark Thirty, just as there are no such men in real life. The eventual assassination of Osama bin Laden after a decade of searching came down to blood, tears and patience, not the contrivances employed by Hollywood superspies. Greatness stems from every facet of Zero Dark Thirty, from it’s deliberate but crisp pacing to a plethora of standout performances to its gripping climax which is all the more notable when considering the outcome is already known. In fact the entire film could have sunk in less careful hands thanks to that reality, but the staggering competence of the filmmakers and Bigelow’s unusual access to classified information on the operation, the whole truth or not (very likely not) adds instances of gravitas and nuance that could not have been achieved otherwise. Surprising further is the political stance Bigelow and screenwriter Marc Boal take with regards to this film, or rather the lack of one. Zero Dark Thirty is not a finger to Republicans or a celebration of the left wing, a pat on the back to the CIA or an expose of their ten-year-long failure. It is not anti-Muslim or sympathetic to those who would do the world harm, nor is it pro or anti American. It is merely a story and an enthralling one at that. Much has been made public about the use of torture by American spies to glean information from insurgents and al-Qaeda terrorists in the wake of 9/11 such as water boarding and instruments of sound. Like the even-handedness applied to the political, religious and patriotic side of things, Zero Dark Thirty merely presents these sequences. Though disturbing to behold, it would be naïve to think such things didn’t occur just as it would be to believe it’s all foreign organizations do to gather intelligence. In the end, it’s all about one woman against the world – about finding one man who deserves what he gets. The path to the end may not be a straight one, but it’s not one lined with preachers. That woman would be Jessica Chastain’s Maya, reportedly the amalgamation of a number of CIA analysts who worked tirelessly on the hunt for bin Laden. It’s a stunning achievement in acting and the finest performance the budding A-lister has given to date. She is meek and quiet when she needs to be, fiery when required and most importantly always a dominant force even in more reserved moments. Currently she is considered the front-runner for the Best Actress Academy Award and it’s not hard to see why. Her obsessive portrayal is heads and shoulders above any other actress tapped for a nomination. Not to be outdone by our lovely leading lady, the remaining cast is uniformly fantastic as well. Jason Clarke last seen as one of the Bondurant brothers in Lawless is simultaneously charming, frightening and eerily enigmatic as one of the CIA operatives specializing in interrogation. While not given much to do in that gangster epic between Shia LaBeouf’s screen time and Tom Hardy’s general dominance, he explodes on screen here with one of the best performances of the year, even though primarily appearing in the first third. Kyle Chandler as the Islamabad Station Chief, James Gandolfini as head of the CIA and Mark Strong and Mark Duplass as higher-ranking analysts similarly bring home their roles along with some bleakly subtle comic relief. And come time for the raid on bin Laden’s compound, Navy SEALs Chris Pratt and Joel Edgerton shed any pre-existing stigmas and turn in edgy but light portrayals. None of the casting choices made by Bigelow are easy ones, and many are full-on atypical. Looking at the end result, it’s pretty clear everyone involved was cast due to talent and not marketability. After two hours or gripping espionage from the men and women behind the curtain, things inevitably come down to a man with a gun and the siege on the Pakistani compound which housed the terrorist leader and his chief courier is as potent and masterful as you’ve heard. This is not some flashy raid, but a minimalistic exercise in strategy that earns its tension though realism and fantastic direction. Likewise it’s not clean, things go wrong during this operation – breaches fail, men are nearly shot and the locals get a little too close for comfort. Like everything else in Zero Dark Thirty the climax provides precisely what it needs to and nothing more. Embellishment and grandeur are not on the table. Films like Body of Lies and Rendition has treaded in this territory before but as I initially iterated, this is like no film I’ve seen, with its execution, even posture and wonderful performances meshing into something entirely unique. It’s one of the year’s most thrilling and potent films, and achieves unequivocally in making Oscar-winners Bigelow and Boal filmmakers to watch with fervor.


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