Eyewear On Zero Dark Thirty

Eyewear's Film Critic James A. George On The Latest CIA Thriller From America...

Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty is American award fodder that’s bold enough to raise some serious issues (namely, the use of torture) and has thus been bashed for it in the news. As with every year around the film award seasons, a conspiracy of controversy comes into existence in order to deter awards going to certain films and such – the theory that this film glorifies torture is completely unfounded. While the film may win many an award, the only award it deserves is for best actress, perhaps.
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Zero Dark Thirty tells the grand story of the decade long search for Osama Bin Laden while retaining a human element. The only other American film to balance real-life large scale politics and this human element is the classic All The President’s Men – which dealt with the uncovering of the Watergate scandal while successfully developing its characters throughout the struggle, something Zero Dark Thirty fails to do. The performances themselves somewhat make up for this, especially the central performance from Jessica Chastain as Maya. I don’t think Chastain could act poorly if she tried; she’s a true chameleon of the highest caliber.

So if the characters are somewhat thin, do the politics take the forefront? Not especially. While the general nature of America’s rigid hierarchical politics is represented well –with some witty flourishes such as Maya’s relegation concerning the seating plan of the war room – we are not bogged down in the details. This is something I appreciate, others value a film with politics up to its knees – in which case Speilberg’s Lincoln is worth a watch. The film really comes into its own in moments of tension and action, where the editing, camerawork, acting and direction all align. It’s not spoiler to say the last section of the film deals with the raid on Bin Laden, and this sequence alone is masterful.

There are some real inconsistencies in this film but it does genuinely warrant its running time, and is one of the few films coming out of Hollywood not in need of a serious half hour trim. The screenplay is really quite great and definitely shines through, where perhaps it should not. Consider set and costume design: in this film they are so accurate and real they become invisible, the highest compliment. So when contemplating this film retrospectively, the fact that the screenplay is so prominent means that something, somewhere has possibly gone wrong.

While it is hard to pin down why, my guess is that the film seems unsure whether it wants to be a tense drama or a faux-documentary. The cinematography and directing seems to conflict between these two aesthetics, and the occasional jarring real-footage mixed in at moments of narrative interlude does not help. Reviews are tricky. As I watched the film, I was gripped and indulged. I left the screening somewhat pumped from all of it, but it soon faded, and with some time and distance, I now know why. Whether you go out of your way to see this film at the cinema or not really depends on your interest in the topic. If the hype around Bigelow’s previous film, The Hurt Locker, confounded you as it did me, I would suggest waiting for the opportunity to watch it on DVD.