Before we get started, let me just say this: I am a total movie snob. I do not consider myself the “general consumer” whatsoever. When people think, Man, Movie X was sooo amazing, I tend to think it was just okay. So chances are I’m probably a little bit harsher judging movies than other people. I am very hard to please.
Now that that’s said, here’s pretty much what I expected after seeing the trailer for Zero Dark Thirty: A typical army movie geared towards men with a little more pizzazz and production value than usual. I’ll be honest, when I found out the lead was a chick, I assumed it was just for eye candy. I had heard a lot of buzz about this movie, however, most of it positive. In fact, when I walked in through the doors of Carmike Cinemas and handed my ticket to the employee, he looked at it and said, “Oh, great movie man. Totally awesome.” Director Kathryn Bigelow is certainly quite renowned for making excellent military films (such as the Academy Award winning The Hurt Locker), so when I sat down and the previews started rolling, my expectations were high.
Now I’m not going to go through every single detail of this movie and spoil it for others who want to see it, so here’s pretty much the synopsis: Our main protagonist, a fiery redhead CIA officer named Maya (Jessica Chastain), spends twelve years of her career focusing solely on intelligence related to al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden following the September 11th attacks, finally to get the lead she needs locate and eliminate the America’s Public Enemy #1.
This film was no-nonsense throughout. During the whole movie, the audience was filled with a feeling of somber intensity that never let up. Right away, the movie’s opening scene is a dramatic pitch black backdrop with plain white print stating the date: September 11, 2001. In the background are numerous real 911 calls that eat away at your heart. They focus particularly on one woman, who calls in stating that the building collapsed and it was excruciatingly hot and hard to breathe. The operator tries to keep her calm, but the woman keeps repeatedly wailing that she’s going to die. The effect is certainly dramatic, and sets the tone for the rest of the movie.
Then our story fast forwards 2 years later, and we are introduced to our main character, Maya, played by Jessica Chastain. I’m really not sure how I felt about the role. She’s supposed to come off as a relentlessly passionate, strong woman, but at some times I just didn’t buy it. At first, Maya seemed timid and quiet during an interrogation, only to drop random F-bombs all over the place when talking to high ranked professionals five minutes later. It didn’t feel natural, especially when I couldn’t ignore her perfect curls and expensive aviators in nearly every other scene. She’s in Pakistan, for heaven’s sake. There were some standout shouting matches, though, I’ll give her that. It was a hit or miss overall with the acting, except with the actor Jason Clarke, who plays Dan, a fellow colleague and a ruthless interrogator. He came off as completely natural and completely believable, which I would imagine would be difficult to do when acting full-out torture scenes.
Speaking of torture scenes, the ones in this movie are apparently controversial. Before my screening, I had heard from a friend that there was a 20 minute torture scene at the beginning. From the way people were talking, I expected a full-out gore fest filled with truncated limbs all over the place. In reality, all there was were some water boarding techniques used on a prisoner, in which water was poured on a cloth covering the prisoners face, creating a drowning sensation. Now don’t get me wrong, those scenes were super intense, even without the onslaught of blood I anticipated. Jason Clarke did an exceptional job at playing the merciless, non-caring, shouting and demanding interrogator. When the prisoner was handed some water that he enthusiastically downed with a single lone tear rolling down his dirty, scratched cheek, I was done. I was so emotionally connected that I actually felt afraid for the captive. A nice ironic touch was that a few scenes later, a TV is shown with Obama in a real interview briefly stating, “America doesn’t do torture,” when clearly we just saw the opposite. That, actually, is the real basis of all the controversy- the way the film suggested that out of torture use by the CIA we were able to kill Bin Laden.
Production value wise, I thought the film was brilliantly put together. It’s the small things that the general consumer doesn’t notice that actually makes all the difference. Take the camerawork, for example. Typical high-budget movies will normally have standard, yet artistic, rock-steady shots. This film, however, was shot with a hand-held camera, which allowed for slightly shaking and moving shots that give the viewer a more realistic and in-depth look into the story. The sets were effectively lit as to imitate the feeling of actually being there, smartly using no artificial filters. When moving to each new location, b-roll was shown of the natural city streets, which embodied the type of culture and community the characters were in. During the parts shot at night, footage alternated between dark, shadowy shots and green-tinted goggle vision views, which made the action both easy to see and believe. For the most part, there was actually little to no music, which I think worked to an advantage. If a soaring, dramatic score accompanied the part where the troops stormed Osama’s compound, for instance, it would take away from the reality by constantly reminding us that this is just a movie. Instead, every explosion, gun shot, and helicopter chop reverberates off the walls and into your seat, constantly keeping you alert throughout the nearly two and a half hours you’re in the theater.
There were a couple instances where I didn’t like or was puzzled at particular scenes or lines in the movie, though. Most people I think wouldn’t pick up on them or wouldn’t care, but for me it subtracted from my overall verdict. Why would Maya use a pen and paper to record an interrogation when the viewer knows she has a perfectly good, high-tech cell phone that she could record more accurately on? Why was there a bizarre, brief conversation about a romantic interest that had absolutely no place in the situation? Why the heck would you try to insert some weak comedic relief about Tony Robbins literally seconds before soldiers attempted to kill Osama Bin Laden? Why was it necessary for me to see a naked butt that would potentially scar me for life during a torture scene? I even made a list of the incredibly cheesy, cringe-worthy dialog I heard, which were supposed to be BA one-liners, but were interpreted as a mere nice try instead.
“I’m gonna smoke everyone in this Op, then kill Bin Laden.”
Regardless, I won’t deny that this was a very good movie that I didn’t see coming. You’ll feel totally immersed, whether you’re a fan of this type of movie or not. Honestly, I was surprised at how many students had not even heard of it when I asked around- it’s nominated for multiple Oscars! I actually think it would an excellent date night movie choice, since there is something in it for both girls and guys. Guys will love the whole military, storming-the-compound thing, while girls can appreciate a female lead and an intriguing storyline. It’s not a chick-flick, but not a brawny action movie either. Bottom line, Zero Dark Thirty is one of those movies that love it or hate it, it’s a must-see.
Final Verdict: 4 stars
Have you seen Zero Dark Thirty? What did you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts. Do you agree or disagree with my opinion? Fire off in the comments!
Web Sources Used: Google (I am protected under fair use for using the poster)