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Bigelow has given us her masterpiece

With ‘Zero Dark Thirty,’ director and screenwriter shine a light on modern warfare and the hunt for

Movie Critic

Published: Monday, January 28, 2013

Updated: Monday, January 28, 2013 15:01


Sony Pictures/MCT

A still image from the film “Zero Dark Thirty,” which has been nominated for Best Picture.

War films are problematic. Most of them are preachy, melodramatic and tedious, not to mention that they all give us the same anti-war message yet they glorify war violence to the point where it looks appealing, not horrific.

    The war film genre is one of the most cliche-filled and overdone genres around, but director Kathryn Bigelow has now produced two of the best war films in recent years.

    The first was “The Hurt Locker,” 2009’s best picture winner, and now she has made “Zero Dark Thirty,” and it’s one of the most impressive cinematic achievements of the decade.

    Bigelow’s film is about the decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden, told through the perspective of CIA operative Maya (Jessica Chastain). Beginning in 2003, Maya thinks she has found the key that will lead us to bin Laden: his personal courier, Abu Ahmed.

    Maya is the lone wolf on this lead, though. She initially can’t provide any evidence or intelligence that the man is still in contact with bin Laden, or even if he exists or is still alive. It’s all based on gut instinct, but she knows she’s right and that he’s the magic bullet that will lead to bin Laden’s location and eventual capture.

    The hunt for bin Laden is Maya’s obsession. She was recruited by the CIA right out of high school and this has been her only mission since joining. It’s her life’s work and her determination is strengthened when almost everyone around her is doubting her intelligence and ability.

    Last year, Chastain had one of the best breakout years of any actress in recent memory, appearing in supporting roles in four films in which she stole the show in all of her scenes.

    In “Zero Dark Thirty,” Bigelow has given her a role that showcases her talent as a lead actress, and it’s the performance of her career, capturing the passion and desperation of a woman who is always the smartest in the room, a woman who knows she’s always right.

    One could easily question her motivation; she seems to have a personal vendetta against bin Laden. But as I said earlier, her determination likely comes from the fact that she knows how to get him, yet very few of her fellow operatives and superiors give her any attention.

    Since the events in the film are still fresh in every American’s mind, it requires a lot of care to bring it to the screen in a way that doesn’t seem disrespectful or exploitive.

    Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal have recreated the major events of the War on Terror with such maturity that they’ve almost created a new genre with the work. It almost plays like a documentary because of how it incorporates the major events of the War on Terror into the storyline.

        The film starts off with 9/11, with audio recordings of victims both in the planes and in the buildings while the screen is blacked out (the decision to not accompany the audio with archival 9/11 footage makes the opening scene incredibly haunting) and it ends with a recreation of the raid on bin Laden’s compound, told almost in real time. It takes up 25 minutes of the film, not too much shorter than the length of the actual raid.

    Under a different director, the events portrayed in “Zero Dark Thirty” could have been given the typical Hollywood treatment of war, but Bigelow is an artist with a vision. Despite that there will probably be no way of knowing for sure what went on during the bin Laden raid, her recreation of the events is direct and unsentimental, which is the most appropriate way to handle this material.

    Any discussion of “Zero Dark Thirty” is incomplete without addressing the controversy that surrounds it. The film bluntly depicts scenes of torture, including waterboarding – scenes that are difficult to watch.

    Many film critics, activists and politicians have criticized the film, claiming that Bigelow and Boal endorse the usage of torture because in the film, Maya first learns about Abu Ahmed through a detainee and torture victim, convincing many viewers that torture led to the capture of bin Laden.

    One could easily make this connection after seeing the film, but I don’t think Bigelow or her movie are pro-torture. The film doesn’t claim that Abu Ahmed would never have been discovered if it hadn’t been for waterboarding. Bigelow herself said that she is against America’s use of torture, but it was a practice that was used, useful or not, during the hunt for Osama bin Laden.

    In my eyes, the inclusion of those scenes is completely necessary. Not doing so would be shamefully rewriting history. In fact, I’m not entirely sure that the film itself has a “stance” on torture, which is something I commend it for. It plays like a true documentary; it merely shows that it happened.

    In a genre that is normally chock-full of preachiness, it’s refreshing to see a film depict a controversial topic in a nonpartisan way.

    “Zero Dark Thirty” is Bigelow’s unquestioned masterpiece. It’s technically flawless and artistic and it brilliantly mixes the genres of drama, documentary, war and thriller evenly.

    For a movie that everyone already knows the ending to, it still makes the heart race witnessing the recreation of the events still fresh in every American’s mind.

    Bigelow’s efforts are a testament of how underappreciated and underused women are in American filmmaking, especially in the director’s seat.

    In a genre and subject that has traditionally been associated with the male gender, she has defied the odds by not only making the film’s hero a woman (the part could have easily been written for either gender), but by also creating two of the greatest war films in recent memory.

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