Film Review: Must-see 'Dark Thirty' worthy of the debate it's inspired

Photo courtesy of Columbia Pictures
The portrayal of the raid on Osama bin Laden's fortress is a tour de force in "Zero Dark Thirty."

Photo courtesy of Columbia Pictures The portrayal of the raid on Osama bin Laden's fortress is a tour de force in "Zero Dark Thirty."

Nominated Thursday morning for the Best Picture Academy Award, "Zero Dark Thirty" faces competition from a less immediate and divisive recreation of wartime history, Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln."

Faulkner wrote: "The past is never dead. It's not even past." True, yet time is the great healer. Will the excesses of the so-called "War on Terror" be easier to digest, rationalize and perhaps even forgive a century from now? Or will the blowback from torture continue to resonate, endanger and shame America?

Based on "firsthand accounts of actual events," according to its opening text, "Zero Dark Thirty" is directed by Kathryn Bigelow and scripted by Mark Boal, who earned Academy Awards for their previous collaboration, the Oscar-validated Best Picture of 2008, "The Hurt Locker." The new movie is a logical follow-up and companion piece to the earlier film, which was a harrowing, intimate examination of the dangerous lives of soldiers in an Army bomb disposal unit during the Iraq War.

For a decade, an elite team of intelligence and military operatives, working in secret across the globe, devoted themselves to a single goal: to find ...

Rating: R for strong violence including brutal disturbing images, and for language

Length: 157 minutes

Released: January 11, 2013 Nationwide

Cast: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Joel Edgerton, Jennifer Ehle, Mark Strong

Director: Kathryn Bigelow

Writer: Mark Boal

More info and showtimes »

‘Zero Dark Thirty’

Rated R for profanity, violence and scenes of torture.

Scrupulously fact-based, "Zero Dark Thirty" is more epic in chronological, geographical and political scope than its predecessor, yet it is similarly intense as it follows an obsessed CIA agent, Maya (Jessica Chastain), on the decade-long hunt to find and kill Osama bin Laden, the al-Qaida founder who masterminded the 9/11 attack on America. (I didn't write "capture or kill" because it's hard to believe any other outcome was possible.)

"Zero Dark Thirty" has turned a lot of people into movie critics, including Sen. John McCain, who protested the film for making the case, in his mind, that torture is an effective method of interrogating suspects. The movie already has inspired reams of argumentative and contradictory op-ed columns, as well as many highly detailed exegeses by critics parsing the details of the script and of Bigelow's compositions and editorial choices to determine the film's "politics" (for want of a better word).

The most relevant fact, however, is that torture was used on terror suspects in the wake of 9/11, and to fail to depict this in a movie about the American response to 9/11 would be a whitewash. Because torture was used, arguing whether it was effective becomes a subject for debate, and Bigelow and Boal are not as interested in this debate as in presenting a suspenseful spy/war film that is "authentic"but also beholden to the "manhunt" and "mission accomplished" films of genre tradition. (Bigelow is very much a genre filmmaker, as evidenced by her earlier work, including "Near Dark," a road movie with vampires, and the infamous "Point Break," about surfers who moonlight as bank robbers.)

In a way, "Zero Dark Thirty" is a grand-scale historical revenge film, like "Django Unchained"; a difference is that Quentin Tarantino's what-if fantasy promises a transformed (if imaginary) world, while the audience knows that post-Osama life is as dangerous as ever.

A red-tressed Pre-Raphaelite madonna with the cleft chin and chiseled features of an action hero, Chastain's Maya — apparently very much based on a real person — is described early in the movie as "a killer." Herself a no-nonsense, almost Amazon-like warrior in a male-dominated occupation and industry, Bigelow must have been delighted to discover the agent perhaps most responsible for Osama's death was a woman, and no doubt she identified with the agent's talent and resolve. Even so, the film's journalistic construction obscures what in less artful hands might have become a Hollywood-ized, even silly portrayal of a hero.

A survivor of at least one terrorist bombing, Maya explains: "I believe I was spared so I could finish the job" (of finding Osama). Says one government employee about Maya: "It's her against the world."

When Osama's likely location is discovered, Maya tells a Navy SEAL: "You're gonna kill him for me." Not for justice, not for freedom, not for America — for me. As the ads promise in so many B-movies about cops: "This time it's personal." The raid on Osama's compound in Pakistan occupies the movie's final half-hour, and it's a tour de force.

Nevertheless, Maya is the film's most enigmatic figure, even though she's on-screen more than anyone else. Her opinion of torture is ambiguous; we see her flinch, on occasion, but she's not reluctant to employ pain or to be around it.

The chief torturer in the film is a scruffy CIA agent (superbly played by Jason Clarke) at a secret "black site." He's good at his gruesome job, but eager for transfer. As he warns Maya: "You don't want to be the last one holding a dog collar when the oversight committee comes." He also gets what may be the movie's most significant line: "We know what he know," he states, almost ridiculously, in reference to some CIA intelligence. He then explains: "It's a tautology" — a self-reinforcing statement that can't be disproved. It's an admission of helplessness and an acknowledgment of absurdity: an appropriate response to a new type of war.

I don't think "Zero Dark Thirty" — named the best film of 2012 by the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Board of Review — is the masterpiece some have made it out to be; I found its technical craft greater than its emotional impact, and I don't believe it's groundbreaking in any way. But it's certainly a must-see — a movie worthy of the debate it has inspired.

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