Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Film Review - Zero Dark Thirty

Kathryn Bigelow's follow up to her Oscar winning The Hurt Locker sees the Director returning to familiar territory of the middle east and the aftermath of September 11, 2001. Instead of bomb detection and retrieval this film focuses on the 10 year hunt to find Osama bin Laden.

The films main character Maya (Jessica Chastain) is a recent CIA recruit sent to Pakistan to join the Working Group to gather information on the leaders, structure and operational procedures of Al Qaeda. She is hands on in the interrogation of detainees and reviews countless hours of footage of interrogations to gain information on the organization.

The story uses an episodically approach starting with the interrogation of a Saudi Al Qaeda money man Ammar (Reda Kateb)  then shifting to other Al Qaeda detainees, network contacts and eventually the Seals.

Maya is searching for a courier who is known by a number of the detainees. She is hopeful that if she can find this courier that he may lead to bin Laden or it could turn out that he is last in line to a multi person row to the Al Qaeda leader.

All of the major historical events are touched on from September 11th, to the July 2005 London bombings, the attacks in India, the bombing at the US base in Afghanistan and the September 28, 2008 attack at the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad. The events serve as a sign post to advise the viewer of the timeline of the story. It can be difficulty to create suspense in a film where the viewer knows the eventual outcome however Bigelow manages to keep the suspense and tension at a high level.

One of the tools used greatly in the film is the score. It's full of traditionally local instrumental pieces and that familiar slow underlying hum of flutes & whistles, guitar like Ouds, tambourine and drums. The military scenes feature music with a driving baseline. The piece chosen to back the flight of the Seals to their target starts with a slow baseline the quickens using an up tempo string section then combines the two and builds in volume as the Seals move closer to their target.

Bigelow re teamed with Hurt Locker writer Mark Boal for this film. The pair did their research through interviews and document review.  As they were gathering information about the events they learned about this junior female single minded agent agent who recruited right out of school had  only worked on bin Laden. The co-producers knew they had found their lead character.

Film editors William Goldenberg and Dylan Tichenor did an excellent job with the film material. Especially strong were the scenes where they put together the different terror attacks over the 8 year period of the film and the reaction to each event by the Working Team.

Bigelow steers clear from politics for the most part. The events occur during both the Bush and Obama Presidencies. The role of politicians is not prevalent however the narrative clearly shows the time taken to fact check before a go ahead on the raid is given and there is some mention of that not being the case in relation to WMD's. The storyline also notes that the Detainee program went away but does not state overtly that it was due to the change in the White House.

Jessica Chastain is very strong as the featured CIA analyst who put together detainee interviews, messages and intelligence documents to piece together the workings of the highest level of the Al Qaeda network.

Aussie Jason Clarke puts in a strong performance as Dan the bearded feral master interrogator using the carrot but mainly the stick to obtain information from detainees then switches with ease to a clean shaven button down company man when posted back to C.I.A. Headquarters. Reda Kateb is memorable as the initially detainee during his extended scenes of interrogation and interplay with Clarke at a CIA Black Site. Brit Mark Strong who was excellent in 2011's Tinker Tailor Solider has an impactful opening scene mid way through the film. As CIA section chief George he delivers a forceful message to the Working Group in the wake of the Afghanistan base bombing. A key moment  that gives new energy to the team and a great plot device to keep the pace moving.  George later becomes the object of Maya's frustrations which is uniquely displayed during the pre-raid evaluation.

The role and actions of the Seals is well written and presented. They go from one task to the next, if there is a set back or new development they move ahead and adapt. Once a task is complete they switch on to the next item with no dwelling or reflections. When they are on duty they move at 100% when on down time they switch completely off.

Zero Dark Thirty features a strong script from well developed source material. A fast moving piece that does not drag despite its near 160 minute run time.

A film I would recommend.

Zero Dark Thirty | Kathryn Bigelow | U.S.A. | 2012 | 157 Minutes.

*** out of 4

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