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‘Zero Dark Thirty’ evades audience expectations

Director Bigelow succeeds once again with ‘Zero Dark Thirty’

Published: Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Updated: Wednesday, January 16, 2013 02:01

Even before it began to stir discussion as this year’s most controversial Academy Awards Best Picture nominee for its depiction of torture, “Zero Dark Thirty” faced a few key challenges as a film. It was bound to come under scrutiny after director Kathryn Bigelow’s previous film “The Hurt Locker” (2008) made her the first woman to win the Academy Award for Best Director, setting lofty expectations for whichever film she chose as her follow−up project. By making a film based on the U.S. hunt for Osama bin Laden, Bigelow faced a challenge unique to filmmakers focusing on recent current events: How does one fully engage the audience when it already knows how the story ends? She did not even come close to succumbing to these issues, and instead delivered gripping, tension−filled drama that easily propelled “Zero Dark Thirty” to stand among the best films of the year.

“Zero Dark Thirty” traces the intelligence career of Maya (Jessica Chastain), a CIA officer stationed in Pakistan, whose goal is to investigate any and all information that could lead to discovering bin Laden’s whereabouts. Over a period of eight years, the film shows Maya as she evolves from a shy newcomer to a forceful and hard−driving officer insistent in her beliefs. The plot is fleshed out by a group of Maya’s colleagues and superiors at the CIA, portrayed by a cast that includes Kyle Chandler, Jason Clarke and Mark Strong. For most of its runtime, the film functions like a procedural as it follows the challenges, false victories and twists that Maya encounters on the years−long path to the U.S. Navy SEAL raid on bin Laden’s compound.

While the plot’s climax is—unsurprisingly—the raid itself, Bigelow’s real−time portrayal of the strike manages to make it an intensely gripping sequence despite the audience’s familiarity with the outcome. Bigelow’s directing ability shines through at its strongest in the raid sequence, which moves at a deliberate pace that slowly ratchets up the tension level by successfully utilizing helmet cameras and night vision to let the viewer experience the action from the perspective of a SEAL. Close−up shots of the soldiers are also used to great effect, allowing one to truly understand the weight of the decisions affecting the SEALS on their mission.

The raid sequence is just one example of Bigelow’s approach to “Zero Dark Thirty,” which eschews typical Hollywood tropes in favor of a more grounded and realistic dramatic approach. One particularly effective technique that Bigelow utilizes is including actual news clips of terrorist attacks over the years to serve as landmarks in the film, such as a snippet of a report from the 2005 London bombings and audio from 911 calls on 9/11. These brief snippets serve to reinforce the context in which Maya’s search is taking place and also act as reminders to Maya and other CIA officers of what’s at stake if they continue to come up short in their hunt for bin Laden.

One of the biggest strengths of “Zero Dark Thirty” is Chastain’s performance as Maya, which anchors the entire film and demonstrates the effects of Maya’s search for the proverbial needle in a haystack. Chastain’s transformation over the course of the movie is startling, as she transitions from a shy agent who is visibly uncomfortable while observing a torture session to a commanding agent who is running the sessions herself. In the midst of all the chaos associated with this manhunt, Chastain’s performance emphasizes Maya’s resilience and confidence that her lead is the key to finding bin Laden, despite opposition from colleagues and superiors who insist that she drop the case to work on “protecting the homeland.”

Regardless of the controversy that continues to surround “Zero Dark Thirty,” Kathryn Bigelow has crafted a heart−pounding thriller that gives an inside view into the frontlines of the U.S. War on Terror, both on the field as well as in the backroom strategy sessions. Anchored by Chastain’s no holds barred performance as Maya, “Zero Dark Thirty” displays a combination of personal drama and tension−filled action sequences that makes it one of the year’s best films.

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