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The Independent Critic

Jessica Chastain, Mark Strong, Joel Edgerton, Chris Pratt, Jennifer Ehle, Jason Clarke and Edgar Ramirez
Kathryn Bigelow
Mark Boal
Rated R
157 Mins.
Columbia Pictures

No Small Feat (4:00) – Looks at the evolution of the film from Beigelow’s point of view

The Compound (9:00) – This featurette examines how the production crew rebuilt bin Laden’s compound as faithfully as possible with the information regarding size and dimensions that was available.

Geared Up (7:00) – A look at the military gear used in the film and the training that the actors went through to be as realistic as possible in portraying the Navy SEALs

Targeting Jessica Chastain (5:00) – A profile of Jessica Chastain’s performance and how she became involved in the film

 "Zero Dark Thirty" Tells a Story America Won't Soon Forget 
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It very likely says quite a bit about Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty that the CIA has felt compelled to publicly disparage the film's accuracy, especially in relation to the film's documented extensive use of waterboarding and other forms of psychological and physical torture in the war on terror that may or may not have eventually led the CIA to the path that led to the discovery and killing of Osama Bin Laden.

The truth is that I don't know the truth and it's doubtful that you know the truth unless, that is, you happen to be one of those who was involved in the raid on Bin Laden's Pakistan compound or the years of research and tracking that led up to it. Zero Dark Thirty is about those years that led up to the Bin Laden raid, years that were largely driven by the efforts of Maya (Jessica Chastain), a newbie CIA agent who finds herself assigned to a "black site" in Pakistan being mentored by Dan (Jason Clarke), a relentless field agent whose methods of interrogation are presented as a matter of fact necessity in a world where everyone lies, no one can be trusted and every decision could be your last one.

Maya recoils on some level during this first interrogation, though it quickly becomes clear that her training and her dedication have prepared her to accept its reality. Zero Dark Thirty is for the most part a workplace drama book-ended by two electrifying scenes of political thrills and chills that serve to drive home the absolute necessity of the mundane and matter-of-fact work that goes into the high drama that unfolds. You find yourself wanting to know more about Maya, but Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal refuse to serve up something that could distract you from what really matters in the film.

The truth is that you're not so much to care about Maya as you are supposed to realize that it's her single-minded dedication to penetrating one of the world's most devastating terrorist groups that ultimately led to the killing of Osama Bin Laden in Abbottabad. It's disconcerting to have such a key character with whom you simply can't bond, but it seems to be Bigelow's assertion that such bonding would be inappropriate in a world where even the slightest hint of self-revelation can be and likely will be used against you. It's not that Maya isn't presented as human, perhaps the masterstroke of Chastain's performance is being able to weave that thread of humanity into this world, but the entire point of understanding the global nature of this film is realizing that it far transcends personality and relationships and all those other warm and fuzzy creature comforts.

It is interesting that 2012 has seen two films existing perilously within the world of political intrigue and unfathomable danger, Ben Affleck's Argo and Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty. One of my fellow critics observed that it was a good thing that Argo had been released earlier and allowed its full run, because Zero Dark Thirty may very well have out Argo'd Argo.

That may very well be true, but it may prove to be interesting which approach audiences prefer. Affleck's film was just as much concerned with the personalities involved with the journey as it was with the journey itself. Bigelow, on the other hand, very much emphasizes that any sense of personality is secondary to the story itself. While Bigelow's name may be big enough for the film to open well, American audiences seem to prefer a more relational moviegoing experience and it'll be interesting to see if familiarity with the story itself will be enough to draw audiences into the theater.

Of course, one could be pleasantly surprised and audiences could be drawn to Zero Dark Thirty simply because it is mighty fine filmmaking. At first sound, Chastain seems wrong for this role or at least she seems out of place in this world. Initially, she seems almost pure in a world that is remarkably impure. Her voice sounds demure, even when she's speaking words that exude strength and control. After awhile, it becomes apparent that any expectation of some bravado, ass-kickin' action star is nothing more than a Hollywood stereotype and what Chastain is serving up is far from a stereotype. Chastain's Maya is just as compelling in her office procedures as she is in the film's more intense and gripping sequences. It's easily one of the year's best performances, both captivating and disciplined in its exhibition.

Zero Dark Thirty is most gripping, and perhaps most revealing, not during the climactic compound assault for which we all know the end result but during a recreation of 2009's Camp Chapman attack. This is a Hollywood film, and it's fair and reasonable to expect a Hollywood style treatment of this attack even if you're among the few Americans who likely remember it and no how it all went down. The fact that Bigelow and Boal can recreate such an intense and unforgettable experience without a hint of histrionics or exploitation is nearly miraculous, the fact that they do so in a way that is emotionally resonant without compromising the continuity of these characters is nothing short of amazing.

Those particularly familiar with these stories will likely recognize many of the characters being portrayed, though Boal and Bigelow have wisely chosen to give a certain degree of anonymity to these subjects. Greig Fraser's cinematography is hypnotic without ever resorting to the all too familiar hand-held shakiness that seems to be all the craze these days. Alexandre Desplat's original score is sparse and barren, perhaps reflecting the isolated world in which these characters live.

Zero Dark Thirty will unquestionably receive a Best Picture Oscar nomination, and Chastain is likely a front-runner for Best Actress alongside Silver Lining Playbook's Jennifer Lawrence. The film isn't a flawless film, however, and I'm hesitant to join the myriad of critics who've already proclaimed the film the year's best or one of the best. Filmed on a fairly modest production budget estimated at $20 million, Zero Dark Thirty may also prove to be one of the very few films with its roots in 9/11 that manages to turn a profit.

While some will fault the film's decidedly amoral approach to telling the story that unfolds here, it's precisely that approach that makes Zero Dark Thirty a film that won't be forgotten for years to come.

© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic
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