Movie review: 'Zero Dark Thirty' acclaim well deserved

In this undated publicity photo released by Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc., Jessica Chastain, center, plays a member of the elite team of spies and military operatives, stationed in a covert base overseas, with Christopher Stanley, left, and Alex Corbet Burcher, right, who devote themselves to finding Osama Bin Laden in "Zero Dark Thirty." AP Photo/Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc., Jonathan Olley

“Zero Dark Thirty”


Annapurna Pictures

2 hours, 37 minutes

In “Zero Dark Thirty,” the critically acclaimed new film chronicling the manhunt for Osama Bin Laden, director Katherine Bigelow feels no need to ease us in to what is going to be a long, grim, tense ride. The film opens with recordings of 911 calls from the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, and proceeds directly to a waterboarding during a CIA black-site interrogation. “We’re not playing games,” she seems to be telling the audience, both through her directing, and through her heroine, the brilliant Jessica Chastain, playing Maya, the woman who spent the entire first part of her career entirely focused on nothing less than the destruction of the terrorist mastermind.

When Maya enters the tale, as a witness to the aforementioned interrogation, she’d already been working on Osama for a while. She is sent to Pakistan where she joins the Bin Laden working group, running snitches, gathering information, and analyzing what they can about one of the most elusive criminals in the world. The audience is never given a chance to know Maya as an individual in her own right, but only in conjunction to her work. This probably has something to do with the fact that the real Maya’s identity is likely kept as a top-level secret.

What we do discover about her is that she is dogged, not easily cowed, and cold as ice, a fact belied by her fiery red hair. As the hunt veers off down a thousand rabbit holes, it is Maya who stubbornly maintains a theory about a mysterious courier who serves as Bin Laden’s trusted right hand. Find Abu Ahmed, she maintains, and you’ll find Osama. Insistently, over years, through set-backs, deaths of friends, and even the rumored death of Abu Ahmed himself, Maya chases this lead until, one day, she and her team wind up at the door to a fortress-like mansion in Abbottabad, Pakistan. The rest is history.

Though very well produced, directed, written, and acted, “Zero Dark Thirty” does feel a bit like a chore at times. The movie is long, and with few light moments. I was glad when we finally got to the introduction of SEAL Team Six, a rough and tumble group of professional soldiers with just enough irreverence to take the edge off. Much of this has to do with the film’s inclusion of funny-man Chris Pratt, best known as the lovable doofus Andy on the show “Parks and Recreation.”

Pratt, who plays Navy SEAL Justin, doesn’t turn the film into a laugh riot or anything, but he’s the friendliest part of the film and a welcome addition. The acting is all very well done, with nice performances by lesser known actors Jason Clarke and Jennifer Ehle, as well as smaller, but no less arresting turns by Mark Strong, Kyle Chandler, and James Gandolfini.

No one can hold a candle, however, to Jessica Chastain. This 36-year-old California native was virtually unheard of before appearing in an independent thriller about Israeli Nazi hunters called “The Debt” in 2010. After that she was everywhere at once, starring in six 2011 releases, including “Tree of Life,” “The Help,” and “Take Shelter.” And with good reason, too. Chastain is beautiful in an ethereal way, and her performances are much the same, as if much is going on beneath the surface.

In that she has a lot in common with another actress who made a similar smash entrance a decade before, Cate Blanchett. Blanchett has been nominated for Oscar four times and has won once — let’s hope Chastain’s career follows a similar path, with this year seeing her second nomination for “Zero Dark Thirty.”

Chastain is great in this film, but never particularly showy — kind of an opposite performance to the equally talented Jennifer Lawrence in “Silver Linings Playbook.” Much of Maya’s strength is displayed in her deliberate stillness. Chastain creates a steely character that is able to slowly evolve so that, by the end of the film, even minor outbursts feel like cannon blasts.

I was hooked by her performance early in the film when, after the aforementioned waterboarding and humiliation, the prisoner is left alone with Maya who has displayed the same kind of disgust and barely concealed horror that you might imagine from anyone. The detainee begs for her help, assuming she, as a woman, can’t help but be moved by his pitiful state. But instead of pity, Maya fixes him with a piercing stare and replies, “You can help yourself by being truthful.” It’s not a major scene, but it’s telling and informs her character. She’s in with the big kids, and though she may look like a pale, wispy little girl, looks can be deceiving.

I was impressed with “Zero Dark Thirty,” but it is a little “by the numbers.” The hunt for Bin Laden was long and arduous, certainly, but offers few surprises, especially since we all know how it’s going to turn out. The one major shocker in the film is telegraphed from a mile away, so I doubt it’ll take anyone by surprise. I agree with the nomination for Best Picture, but a nomination should be enough, in this case. To beat “Lincoln,” or even the bewilderingly applauded “Silver Linings Playbook,” a movie’s got to have some heart, and “Zero Dark Thirty” is all nuts and bolts.

Grade: A-

“Zero Dark Thirty” is rated R for disturbing violence, including scenes of torture, as well as for language and mature themes.

Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.


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