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Film review: 'Zero Dark Thirty' is one smart, Oscar contender

January 14, 2013|By BOB GARVER
  • Jessica Chastain stars in "Zero Dark Thirty."
Associated Press

The decision to grant a wide release to Kathryn Bigelow's "Zero Dark Thirty" was made before the Academy Award nominations were announced this past Thursday.

As expected, the film managed to be one of nine to snag a Best Picture nomination. It was too little too late, however, as any hopes the film might have had at winning Best Picture were in fact dashed a few moments earlier with the announcement of the nominees for Best Director. Bigelow failed to secure herself a nomination, and The Academy can't be very much in love with a film if they don't see fit to honor the individual appointed as its leader.

And yet, all hope is not lost and there is still a very good reason to see the film. The production was shrouded in secrecy, and the extent of the actors' roles was not clear until recently. I was actually expecting this to be one of those ensemble pieces with so many storylines going on at once that it's impossible to label anyone as a "main character."  It turns out that there is most definitely a main character. Her name is Maya, the film portrays her as the CIA officer primarily responsible for taking down Osama Bin Laden, and I do believe that the performance will earn Jessica Chastain the Academy Award for Best Actress.

Like many heralded protagonists, Maya is the epitome of determination. Early in the film she discovers a potential lead in the hunt for Bin Laden and she spends nearly 10 years following it. There are plenty of obstacles to discourage her: there's the inevitable bureaucracy and red tape, her sources don't want to cooperate, her superiors and colleagues aren't supportive, a key player is reported dead, information obtained from torture is dismissed, and the terrorists want to kill her.

Naturally, she perseveres and often in the form of brazen confrontations with male superiors. In one scene she chews out a colleague so thoroughly that when she was done, I felt compelled to do an impression of Chastain's inner monologue. I stuck out my hand and said, "Oscar, please."

The film takes a break from Maya in the last act while we follow SEAL Team Six as they raid Bin Laden's compound. Under normal circumstances I'd complain about the general murkiness of the scene; how it's hard to see, hard to hear, and hard to follow. But I'm sure these elements were just as difficult for the real SEAL Team Six, and it is clearly the goal of the film to be as realistic as possible in this regard.

Comprehensible or not, there is no shortage of tension in these scenes. Of course you worry about the well-being of the heroes, and it's hard not to feel anxiety over the fates of the women and children in the compound.  The most suspense, however, comes from considering the stakes of the mission. These soldiers have the opportunity to take out Osama Bin Laden, talk about the chance of a lifetime. But how crushed would they be if it turns out that he's not there, or worse, if he somehow manages to away?

"Zero Dark Thirty" is undeniably an intelligent (as in smart) film, and it contains a lot of intelligence (as in military and political information). The latter is problematic at times, as I found it difficult to keep up with the all the details of the investigation. Maybe I'm not intelligent enough.

Bigelow and writer Mark Boal painstakingly researched the subject matter, going so far as to obtain and incorporate into the story classified information that many believe shouldn't have been available to them. The result is a complex film that may not have wowed the Academy the way it was supposed to, but is impressive enough to make you wonder if it should have.

Three stars out of five.

"Zero Dark Thirty" is rated R for strong violence including brutal disturbing images, and for language. Its running time is 157 minutes.

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