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Movie Review: Zero Dark Thirty

Published Jan 08, 2013 05:03pm

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A terrorist from any other religion would be just as deadly. Anti-Islamic outbursts and blame game politics vanish behind real-world detective work, tracking false footprints within the bounds of half-fabricated storytelling in ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ – a prominent Oscar aspirant’s horn of zest and conviction.

A man or a terrorist – if we forget about humanity for a second – has his arms stretched by a tightrope, in a single room that doubles as both his sleeping quarters and a torture chamber. He is Ammar (Reda Kateb), and in a drastically realigned world post September 11, he is an enemy.

Maybe not ‘the’ enemy – that would be Osama Bin Laden, the man whose dogged man-hunt, and later execution, is the primary reason behind Zero Dark Thirty (ZDT), the new drama-thriller from Katherine ‘The Hurt Locker’ Bigelow.

Given the subject, the follow-up (especially by film critics) is hardly unprecedented.

In the barest of pitches, the film is this: after a 10 year bamboozling trail of loose ends, terrorist outbursts and deaths of team mates, a once-new CIA agent ultimately bags Osama Bin Laden’s location in Abbottabad.

ZDT, which I estimate will have considerable success this award season, is already saluted as the decade’s most important movie. Emotions would dictate nothing else. It is substantial that much I agree on, but blind-acclaim…not so much.

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The reason is simple enough to work out. It is too early, and there aren’t enough facts; well, other than the ones “declassified” through media.

‘Absolute’ nitty-gritties may be a touch out of reach for entertainment people this soon. Contrariwise, there is enough info to construct documentaries, ham-handed fiction (Seal Team Six: The Raid on Osama Bin Laden) or – in ZDT’s case, docu-styled movies based on ‘what may have happened’ – without distending actualities or evidences.

If this is ZDT’s call to arms, then the end product is more or less fair in its interpretation.

Ms. Bigelow, with Mark Boal (also the writer for The Hurt Locker), craft a keynote track-em-down thriller on established history and prominent, chronologically placed, headlines and leads.

I wouldn’t call Ms. Bigelow’s film a difficult undertaking. Maybe, a few years later, derestricted details would help build a better ‘film’ experience (a benchmark case in this class would be the Michael Keaton starrer Live from Baghdad, directed by Mick Jackson).

As it is Ms. Bigelow and Mr. Boal’s presumption to film ZDT in key-points, without political extrapolation or emotional dissociation, it has more to do with logic than aesthetic. And anyhow, in movies that present behind the scenes recollections of great ordeals, the audience – within their own levels of acquaintance with the issue – find it easier to draft individual wrap-ups.

ZDT’s opening, a black screen with voice-overs from 9/11, says more about the power of ‘don’t show, and tell’ (a reverse of the screenwriting fundamental of ‘show, don’t tell’) than anything in film history.

The rest of the movie has a hard time catching up.

This includes the following scene which introduces rookie CIA strategist Maya (Jessica Chastain) to water-boarding (an essentiality, Ms. Bigelow has the guts to film often), and later acts of human degradation (there is another drastic scene where one of the interrogators stuff the terrorist’s dilapidated form inside a small cabinet).

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Ms. Chastain’s draft, surface-only portrayal of Maya doesn’t help ZDT much either.

As if hung-up on women’s lib (maybe a subdued aesthetic call from Ms. Bigelow), we’re led to accept that one woman’s near fanatical hang-up on Bin Laden’s chief courier led to the events on May 2011.

It is implausible to fathom Ms. Chastain’s Maya (who I believe is partially fictionalised from a real life person), as the detective who single-handedly connects the dots in her 10 year service of false leads and terrorist threats. There is a scene when a well-timed car break helps her miss a bullet spray, and she’s (maybe) a target of the terrorist strike in 2008 at Marriott in Islamabad – did her actions really put her on the terrorist’s hit-list?; that is something we never know, because there’s still too much to divert our attention.

Ms. Chastain is a splendid performer, but her Maya is nothing but a collection of dogged motives and vacant expressions; and Mr. Boal’s script isn’t forthcoming about her either.

The more we know Maya, the less we know the reasoning behind her ambition. Her presence, which gets her to the point of bossy “I say-so” clout, is of superficial importance. She’s just there, as a lynchpin, tying up elements or spacing them in perspective, until the climatic Abbottabad strike-down – which by the way, has its own significant space to flesh out.

By the end, when Maya gets her plane ride back, the officer asks where she would like to go. While the camera waits for her answer and the feeling sinks in – the free-world’s biggest threat was gunned down a few hours ago – is there really a life for her? (We don’t know, because we’ve never been told anything about her). The viewer is left to fill in his own blank; just as he’s had to, for the majority of the film.

Good, bad, overdone, underdone, crafty, courageous, pedantic, clumping – the experience varies on the individual’s level of hurt.

The film stars co-stars: Jason Clarke, Joel Edgerton, Jennifer Ehle, Mark Strong, Kyle Chandler, James Gandolfini as effective side-characters.

Produced by Mark Boal, Katherine Bigelow and Megan Ellison; Directed by Ms. Bigelow; Written by Mr. Boal; ZDT is filmed by Greig Fraser, with editing by Dylan Tichenor and William Goldenberg, music from Alexandre Desplat.

The movie’s greatest asset is its production design by Jeremy Hindle and costumes by George L. Little – rarely has any foreign location (read: India), looked as Pakistani as the ones in ZDT do.

Released by Columbia Pictures, Zero Dark Thirty is rated R for scenes of explicit violence and murder.