Journalistic Filmmaking At Its Best: Zero Dark Thirty Review

(This review was written on December 20th, 2012 after its Limited Release.  Now Nationwide)

I’ll always remember where I was on the morning of September 11th, 2001.  And if you
ask anyone who can remember that date, they will also remember where they exactly where when tragedy struck our country.  It was a horrible event unmatched by any other day in American history.  But September 11th ringed a new age in American society.  Our country changed forever, and there was no looking back.  Homeland security would be on its highest priority.  Our presence in the Middle East would be stamped forever.  Traveling would be more difficult and complicated as its ever been.  But anything is worth the price of our safety?  Right?  Zero Dark Thirty rings in this new American obsession against the war on terror, and focusing on the one man responsible for much of the Islamic jihad throughout the world, Osama Bin Laden, and another responsible for chasing him down.

Zero Dark Thirty is a journalistic experience.  What does that mean?  Well it means that it’s not your typical Hollywood film, where its bleeding cliches and predictability.  It’s completely devoted to its material.  It has absolutely no intentions on stretching the truth, and doesn’t go on tangents or spend any moments discussing anything else other than finding Osama Bin Laden.  At a running time around 2 hours and 30 minutes, one would think it must get tedious and overwhelming.  At if one may feel that way, I wouldn’t necessarily disagree, but this is the journey we take on with Maya (Jessica Chastain).  Ruthless and a “killer”, her life’s work is summed up to one name, and I think you can guess which name that is.  She has no love life.  She has no interaction with her family.  Her friends are those she meets in the field.  We aren’t introduced to another world that Maya belongs to, but follow her commitment in Pakistan.  We don’t know why she’s so into her work, and why finding Bin Laden is such an importance for her.  But considering we all have inner motivation and desire to see Osama Bin Laden taken down, there’s no need to have an additional emotional connection with Maya, as that’s already been established: we all know where we were during the attacks.

Zero Dark Thirty moves at a pace that’s unsettling but necessary.  At first, I felt that it focused too much on Maya’s initial lead, focusing on a potential message carrier named Abu Ahmed.  Maya is certain that if the CIA finds Ahmed, he will lead to Bin Laden.  Much of this film, I’d say at least a third, is focused on Ahmed and his whereabouts.  Those who are unwilling and unready for this experience shouldn’t expect any apologies as this film is unforgiving for those who want things to slow down or go in ways they felt it should’ve.  This is Maya’s evolution.  This is the way she’s revealed to Bin Laden’s exact location.  And Kathyrn Bigelow (director) and Mark Boal (writer), who worked together on The Hurt Locker, wants to tell the story they envisioned it.

There’s some sort of controversy over how much inside confidentiality they received from the CIA and the American government, but I think we can all safely assume that they’ve been given access, which means that much of the experience is truthful and honest.  Maya is most likely an unlikely actual individual, but she’s so important because of what she symbolizes.  She is the new America.  She is the changed culture and societal presence that now exists in our homeland.  Her resilience and persistence in fulfilling her life’s work and finding Bin Laden is all that’s she ever dreamed of, and she’s willing to go as far as possible to find her leads and information.

One of the obvious tactics used in finding the information she needs is through the use of torture, specifically water boarding.  And I must say, that was difficult to watch.  I’m not going to go into this nonsensical debate about ZDT being pro-torture, but I will say, the film is just as relentless and unforgiving on its subject as Maya is on finding the most wanted man in the world.  ZDT is not going to ignore a large part of American interrogation against possible assailants and terrorists.

This is where the film ultimately succeeds.  It’s not forgiving on what America has done to the middle east.  It’s not ignorant on the fact that we’ve made our mistakes.  It completely understands that this whole journey of finding Osama Bin Laden includes skeletons, and no matter if it was successful or if it was needed, it happened.  ZDT doesn’t take sides nor does it send a political message.  Any individual who screams political motive against ZDT is foolish and is completely misunderstanding the film.  Though Maya isn’t real, the journey is.  There are many moments in this film where Bigelow and Boal could’ve driven this film another direction.  Used some character development here, or discussed other themes and focuses, but it they stayed true to the identity of this film.  We can interpret the film which ever way we’d like, that’s the privilege we receive for being a paying customer.  But we shouldn’t infiltrate one’s work to fulfill our own personal ideas or beliefs, especially in the manner they’ve handled it.

This is a film experience that you’ve most likely never had before.  Big words coming out of a film that didn’t come in with much hype as it did speculation.  It’s grueling and enduring.  It’s a pure film, only relying on its main subject matter.  There are not subplots, no outside interaction, no breaks.  And when you think there is one, brace yourself.  This is as intense of a film you’ll ever witness (the last 45 minutes still left marks on me).  And this is exactly the way it should’ve been done.  Bigelow and Boal succeed in a way that I cannot imagine another director-writer tandem would.  The cast succeeds in all counts, especially Chastain (who deserves the Oscar for Best Actress).  Everything in this film works.

I cannot guarantee a positive film experience for everyone.  Some may love the intensity, and some may stray away, but you cannot ignore the achievement in what is Zero Dark Thirty.

Zero Dark Thirty receives 4 stars (out of 5).

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