Monday, January 28, 2013

Flick of The Day: Zero Dark Thirty

Prior to 2008’s The Hurt Locker, director Kathryn Bigelow was perhaps best known for her 1991 surfing-bank robbers epic Point Break which although it contained the combined acting talent of Keanu Reeves and Anthony Kiedis was not without its charms. Her surprise Oscar nod ahead of ex-husband James Cameron’s unstoppably awful behemoth Avatar has since propelled her career to new heights and there was considerable anticipation ahead of the release of her new film and today’s flick of the day, Zero Dark Thirty.
The film is a dark and epic account of the decade long search for Saudi terrorist Osama Bin Laden, perhaps the most wanted man in history. Boldly proclaiming itself to be based on actual events from the opening was always bound to lead to doubters digging away at the plot and this has certainly proved to be the case.  Much of the controversy has centred on how the explicit use of torture by CIA operatives led to the capture of Bin Laden with various politicians of different hues up in arms at the idea that an American serviceman would engage in such nefarious activity and showing a shocking lack of self-awareness in the process. This does not strike me as being a particularly controversial point of view but the controversy has dogged the film since its release in the US and may yet see it miss out on Oscar nods. It would be unfair to the film to review it without tackling the issue head on.
Onward to the film itself them, and it is every bit the exciting and engaging thriller you would expect it to be. Taking the point of view of Maya, a driven CIA operative played by an excellent Jessica Chastain, we take up the chase for Bin Laden two years after the events of September 11th 2001 when the war on terror is in full swing and information is gradually being extracted via torture from various detainees in various CIA black sites. The torture scenes are every bit as uncomfortable viewing as you might imagine and the film must be lauded for asking the moral question at the heart of such actions. Personally I found the Mandingo fighting scenes in Django Unchained more unpleasant but such is the way of things. Maya learns of a man close to Bin Laden, a courier who carries his messages, known as the Kuwaiti. She is the first to spot the potential of this lead and much to the consternation of her superiors drives it above all other considerations from the streets of Pakistani slums to the deserts of Afghanistan and across the Middle East following every new lead till the events of that fateful moonless night in Abbottabad.
Chastain has justly earned plaudits for her performance as the unbending Maya but credit is due elsewhere in what is a fine cast. The various spies and managers in the CIA have a kind of grey unremarkable nature as if they could fade into the background at any given time which perhaps they do. Mark Strong is excellent as George, a high level manager who harasses his agents into delivering targets to be killed in drone strikes and is himself harangued by Maya as she seeks to push for a mission in Abbottabad. Jason Clarke is also excellent as the torturer Dan who seems to care more for his pet monkeys than the prisoners under his watch. At one point he delivers a piece of sage and yet chilling advice to Maya about not being the last person holding a dog collar when the congressional sub-committee come calling. There is also a brief turn from James Gandolfini as the slow moving CIA Director who ultimately recommends an attack.
It is I think an interesting choice to leave almost all of the significant characters either unnamed or with a first name only. It increases the feeling of authenticity, of these spies as being the kind of people who will fade into the pages of history they are writing unnamed and unknown. 
The film should suffer more from the fact that every member of the audience knows how it will end. It doesn’t really and remains fraught with tension until the final scenes perhaps in part due to the level of operational detail about that night which is included in the film for the first time. 
All in all, this is the definitive account of a dark chapter in world history and how the awful deeds of one man were brought to an end. A fine and engaging piece of modern cinema, it deserves to be recognised as such and not slandered for political ends.

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