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Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty

And now for yet another worthy major awards contender...

Following her award-winning military thriller, The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow's latest sees her once again tackling recent history, as she chronicles the true story of how the unyielding persistence of a young, largely inexperienced CIA agent led to the hunting down and killing of Osama Bin Laden. Once again, Bigelow creates a thriller more muscular and ballsy than anything her male contemporaries could ever hope to come up with. While her ex-husband spends his days converting Titanic to pointless 3D and fiddling about with his long-if-not-eagerly awaited Smurfs in Space sequel, Bigelow's earthy and gritty war-time thrillers remain a cut above the rest.

This time, however, Bigelow's take on the War on Terror is given a particularly feminine touch as she employs the tireless and always brilliant Jessica Chastain to portray the film's central CIA operative, Maya. There is plenty to admire and love about Zero Dark Thirty  (the title of which, incidentally, means 12:30 in military speak), but it's Chastain who is the true heart and soul of the film, balancing her character's strength, intelligence and drive with the emotional toll that is an unavoidable side effect of so seemingly impossible and brutal a lifestyle. It's interesting to note that the CIA operative she portrays is also, loosely, the inspiration for Claire Danes' character in the hit TV show, Homeland, but honestly, good as Danes undoubtedly is in the role, Chastain is even better as she imbues her character with more warmth and less hysteria than Danes' occasionally grating Carrie Mathison.

Between Chastain's magnificent performance, a top-notch supporting cast, Bigelow's visceral direction and a fundamentally intriguing story (even if not everyone believes it), there was no way that Zero Dark Thirty would turn out to be anything but a gripping, true-to-life thriller but, like the similarly masterful Argo, it still seems like there's something missing. Zero Dark Thirty is gritty, enthralling, intriguing and suitably brutal - seriously, how foolish do you have to be to believe that the film's awful torture scenes in any way glorify torture? - but it also comes across as emotionally and thematically shallower than it really should do.

Like many true-life dramas, Zero Dark Thirty spend so much time ensuring fidelity to the facts that the storytelling itself occasionally takes a back seat. Particularly lacking is strong characterization for all but the central character - though even there, I couldn't help but want more darkness and more eternal conflict wthin Maya. This is a classic "descent into darkness for the greater good" type of story, but it often feels emotionally underdeveloped. Like every major awards contender, Zero Dark Thirty is very long so it's somewhat unforgivable that despite its length, it doesn't quite do justice to some of the more intriguing aspects of the story.

Still, this hardly means that Zero Dark Thirty isn't deserving of much of its accolades, but with just a bit more depth, it might have had the chance to match the sheer emotional intensity of contemporary heavy hitters like Les Miserables and the Perks of Being a Wallflower. As it is, it's simply a superior thriller, but then, that's hardly something to be sneezed at either, is it?

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