Friday, February 15, 2013

Movie Review: Zero Dark Thirty

There are more than three hundred different ways a film based on the killing of Osama Bin Laden could have slipped up factually, narratively and aesthetically. It is a testament to the exceptional directing prowess of Katherine Bigelow that Zero Dark Thirty stands as such a gripping and thoroughly detailed chronicle of the events surrounding the hunt for OBL. It’s not just a storytelling triumph but also a major research and cinematic achievement.

This is not an action movie as much as it is a stunning exercise in character and plot development. Bigelow and her writer Mark Boal spin a dizzying array of names, informants, spies, anonymous tips, dead ends to pummel you with information, virtually making you part of the investigative team and trusting you to be part of the procedural rather than spoonfeeding you the way most Hollywood thrillers do. It's not often that a film manages to make you as morally confused as the characters on  the screen. The only other American film in recent history to be smart enough to utilize this technique is 2005's Syriana. 

Much has been written about the depiction of ‘inaccurate’ torture scenes in the film. The argument is silly because firstly, depiction is not endorsement, and secondly, it is ridiculous to assume that the CIA lovingly offered candy to folks while asking about the whereabouts of Bin Laden. Bigelow depicts the scenes in brutal and gruesome realism without veering towards tacky torture porn territory. The biggest strength of Zero Dark Thirty, in fact, is how unglamorous it is. Bigelow de-glamorises and de-Hollywoodizes the story with a crankshaft. Neither is there any chest thumping American sloganeering (unlike most Hollywood war movies) nor is the film an Army recruiting commercial (unlike most Hollywood war movies). And unlike most Hollywood movies, Bigelow’s film is written around a strong female character, one that is played to searing detail and strength by the lovely Jessica Chastain.

Nitpicking in Zero Dark Thirty would be nothing but moaning just because one can. One apparent nadir of the film is the underdeveloped SEAL characters. That couldn’t be helped because the SEAL Team Six personnel are nameless and faceless ghosts and developing those characters would have felt needlessly tacked on. Another issue in Zero Dark Thirty is the lack of focus on the SEALS’ training before the mission, something that is covered extensively in this New Yorker article. Naturally it is impossible to squeeze in all the details of the aforementioned piece in one movie, only a full blown miniseries would accomplish that feat. The actors (Joel Edgerton, Chris Pratt) who play the SEALS manage to leave a mark despite having very brief roles and spending majority of their screen time under helmets in the dark of the night. The supporting cast of CIA operatives including Jason Clarke, Edgar Ramirez, Kyle Chandler, Stephan Dillane and Jennifer Ehle are written to perfection. And as a result of the insane amount of data crammed in those two and a half hours, Zero Dark Thirty whizzes by like a bullet. You know how the film is going to end, yet nothing can prepare you for the blistering final twenty minutes at the Abbotabad compound. Bigelow times the raid to stunning specifics, matching its runtime to the actual raid, superbly detailing the military tactics, without selling out and adding in loud gunfire and Call of Duty style flashbangs. It’s pretty much a masterclass on how to craft heart stopping tension and gritty realism without using lazy techniques like shaky cameras and a cacophony of yelling and screaming.

If Katherine Bigelow and Mark Boal impressed you with The Hurt Locker, prepare to have your expectations challenged – because Zero Dark Thirty will blow you away, right from its unsettling black screen opening to the backdrop of 9/11 audio to the end. And just like The Hurt Locker, it will keep curdling like a tenement fire in your skulls long after you’ve left the theater. 

(First published in MiD Day)

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