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Zero Dark Thirty (USA 2012) – a Worthy Oscar Successor?

Hailed by virtually all and sundry as a masterpiece and a worthy successor to her Oscar-winning THE HURT LOCKER, Katherine Bigelow’s ZERO DARK THIRTY has also generated moral outrage and what could best be described as a media and political shitstorm.

Nevertheless it has been nominated for 4 Golden Globes, 4 BAFTAS and 5 Oscars, including Best Picture and a Best Actress nomination for Jessica Chastain, although Ms. Bigelow herself has been left out of the Best Director category.

Outlining the plot is like talking about The Titanic. We all know how it ends: with the May 1, 2011 assassination of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. And likewise how it begins: with the September 11, 2001 bombings of the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. The drama of ZERO DARK THIRTY, however, deals with the ten years in between: The exhaustive and at times soul-destroying search for Bin Laden himself. Information is gathered mostly from suspects who are loathe to reveal it, despite the oft painful means of persuasion applied. Such intel must then be evaluated and added to the flood of misleading reports, false sightings, vague clues and blind alleys representing the CIA’s 10-year manhunt for the elusive Al Qaeda leader.

Bigelow’s film stars Jessica Chastain as Maya, a young CIA agent posted to the Middle East following the 9/11 attacks who is ill-prepared for the length to which her colleagues will go when it comes to extracting information from their suspects. But as years go by and her commitment to finding bin Laden intensifies, she becomes a key player in discovering the evidence leading to his whereabouts and eventual liquidation.

The movie doesn’t pull any punches, kicking off in 2003 with some unpleasant interrogation sequences – including water-boarding. It is Maya’s first day on the job and she is introduced to her fellow operative Dan (Jason Clarke) in a secret prison in the desert, where he is up to his elbows interrogating a captive suspected of Al Qaeda affiliations. As in THE HURT LOCKER, Bigelow seeks to portray this horrific scene and the many which follow, factually, with the minimum of emotion, as all part of a day’s work.

ZERO DARK THIRTY owes its title to the military time of thirty minutes past midnight when the Navy SEALS operation began. Based on extensive research as well as interviews with those who took part in the mission, journalist Mark Boal, who penned THE HURT LOCKER, has produced a screenplay that would seem to accurately reflect the work of the CIA and Navy SEALs. Although the film maker seeks to avoid moral condemnation or any judgments of such issues as torture, political calculation, or covert black ops, leaving the audience to make of them what they will, we should not forget that Kathryn Bigelow’s film is not, nor does it claim to be, a documentary – but rather a mixture of facts, half-truths, and fiction. In other words, it’s just a “movie”, baby.

Unfortunately, it is this very objectivity – one of the film’s major strengths, in my opinion – that is abandoned in the final act – the storming of the house where bin Laden has taken refuge, and his subsequent killing. Portrayed in an ultra-documentary style, complete with night-vision camera work, this sequence is heavily dramatized, seemingly more in line with Hollywood than reality. Bigelow does indeed dispense with pathos and gung ho patriotism a la ACT OF VALOR for the major part of the film, but in this sequence the lines between good and evil are clearly drawn. Certainly the Navy SEALs who were involved in the mission are silent heroes – as they are not allowed to speak about the mission publicly – but they are portrayed as heroes all the same. The only question is whether the killing of bin Laden is likely to change anything at all. Although the event was certainly used to full effect in last year’s US presidential campaign. It would hardly make any sense at this point to criticize the way the US operates, as Maya, dedicated CIA agent, never openly questions her country’s methods. But as the final showdown takes an unequivocal stand, the opening neutrality loses some credibility.

As far as film making goes, ZERO DARK THIRTY is, beyond any doubt, a well-crafted piece of work. The actors are all excellent, although I personally find the Oscar nomination for Jessica Chastain’s performance somewhat over-rated, and the production has many intense and thrilling moments to offer. But as the film is not a documentary and it remains unclear as to what is factual and just where Hollywood fiction has crept in, it hardly offers any vital new information. So what was the point? To focus discussion on the use of torture? On whether terrorism is actually diminished by the killing of its figureheads? To show that the war against terror is primarily fought from behind a desk and behind closed doors? All well and good, but none of this really makes ZERO DARK THIRTY the major revelation that many critics maintain. Kathryn Bigelow has succeeded in crafting a good political thriller, without question a worthy, albeit somewhat weak, successor to THE HURT LOCKER. But a great masterpiece which relates the whole truth about the assassination of bin Laden it is not.

For lovers of good US political thrillers and such viewers who may be interested in the material and the subsequent discussions it generates, 156 minutes in the movie theatre won’t be a waste of time.


ZERO DARK THIRTY (USA 2012); Distributor: Sony Pictures (US) /  Universal Pictures (Germany); Release dates: 19. December, 2012 (US) / 31. Jan. 2013 (Germany); Running time: 156 mins; Director: Kathryn Bigelow; Writer: Mark Boal; Cast: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Joel Edgerton, Jennifer Ehle, Mark Strong, Kyle Chandler, Edgar Ramirez; Cinematographer: Greig Fraser; Composer: Alexandre Desplat

For more information and trailer: www.zerodarkthirty-movie.com/

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