Few films have the power to completely mesmerize an audience. Sure, they can provide entertainment and thrills, but it's few and far between when a movie can literally engulf you into its world and leave you breathless at the end. Not to put too much clout onto it, but Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty is one heck of a ride.
Originally intended to be a piece about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, the film changed its course in may 2011 when bin Laden was actually found and killed. Bigelow, fresh off her double win at the Academy Awards for The Hurt Locker (notably becoming the first female Best Director winner in history), and writer Mark Boal (also a THL Oscar winner) adapted and pieced together a timely actioner mixed with just the amount of genuine charisma and drama and created a modern masterpiece.
I know there are skeptics out there, and plenty of politicians saying that the film's torture scenes can put American in a bad light, but in an age when intelligence and theory are both well-documented and easily hidden, it is a great testament to the power of storytelling and the power of art imitating life.
The film follows Maya (played with honesty by Jessica Chastain, who may be the Best Actress frontrunner at this point), a CIA employee determined to find and punish those responsible for the September 11 attacks. When a lead ends up becoming a dead end, all work, finances, and energy are put to a stop. Years down the road, after several more attacks around the world, a tip to a possible agency overlook leads Maya into a tailspin of information and uncovering. Eventually she pieces everything together to find the compound that plays home to the final killing of bin Laden.
The film set its itself up as a soft-spoken action movie early on, but switches to a clever drama with ease. Boal's screenplay feels very relevant and current. It's one of those movies that will sit well with the time period decades down the road. The torture scenes are intense, but not overly gratuitous. The performances are natural, with Chastain leading an impressive ensemble including Kyle Chandler and James Gandolfini.
While it doesn't feel quite as openly epic as The Hurt Locker, it works in its own right. The somewhat middle-paced first and second acts have their own surprises. But, it's the third act that really sells the movie. Once Seal Team 6 is recruited from Area 51 (naturally) and put into choppers, the subtle quietness and intensity of the mission plays out. I found myself holding my breath as they opened doors and looked around corners. The absence of music makes you feel as if you are Maya, sitting in an observation room, watching this as if it were actually happening.
The ending of the movie needs no spoiler alert. We all know how it ends, and like other similar films, like United 93 or this year's Argo, the magic that the director seems to use is what makes this movie still feel like an open-ended story.
Flawed in minor ways, Zero Dark Thirty is one reason why we go to the movies. Intense, relevant, solid. Don't miss this.
Runtime: 157 minutes.
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