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Movie Review: Zero Dark Thirty

Jan 112013
 
 By , January 11, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty

‘Zero Dark Thirty’ — a film review

It came over me as I left the screening of “Zero Dark Thirty” the other evening. I had this sudden, silly urge to quickly whisper at two or three people working the concession stand, “The bad guy gets killed,” but thought better of it and, without a word, went outside to my car.

Zero Dark Thirty

Chris Pratt and Joel Edgerton in Zero Dark Thirty.

But as I walked across the lot, I thought to myself: “I wonder about the life histories and personal conflicts of the U.S. personnel depicted in this new film by Kathryn Bigelow (“The Hurt Locker”). “What is it that motivates them to such courage and risk? How much of it is for the right stuff, or is it … for stuff that isn’t?”

That also ran through my mind for part of the time I was watching this extraordinary movie about the stalking and killing of Osama bin Laden.

Otherwise, what we have here is a very well-made motion picture about something quite important to U.S. citizens. It is not a police procedural. However “Zero Dark Thirty” is, mostly, a “procedural.” And dare I say it (?): “Everyone already knows how it comes out at the end.”

Zero Dark Thirty

Jessica Chastain.

That’s not the point, though. The point being: the film allows for a common image to be taken in by Americans on how shutting down bin Laden happened, with actors playing the roles of real American personnel, and in some cases, it seems, characters that are a composite of more than one real person. They are a curious collection: intelligent, educated, argumentative, articulate, obsessive, determined, loyal, obedient and appreciative of the importance of foul language uttered just at the right moment.

That holds especially so for the character called Maya in the film.

She’s the lead character, played by Jessica Chastain, and the one I would most like to know more about. Hardly a hint is given about Maya’s back story, except for a brief stretch of dinner-out girl talk between her and her “buddy” agent, Jessica (Jennifer Ehle). Their social chat is cut short by the terrorist truck bomb explosion that rocked the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad, Pakistan, in 2008.

Zero Dark Thirty

Jennifer Ehle.

Playing Maya does display the “stretch” in Chastain’s acting talent. I’ve seen her in more than a few films over recent years. Maya could’ve been easily overplayed. With help from Mark Boal’s script, Chastain (a native Sacramentan) keeps Maya enigmatic, except for occasional, measured outbursts of emotion watching her captives being tortured by others, learning a colleague has been blown to bits by a car bomb, feeling the tension as the raid to take out bin Laden proceeds and experiencing the nose-diving moment of de-stressing that begins to takes hold of her as the mission is accomplished.

Except for Chastain and James Gandolfini, the movie is cast with few familiar faces. They are, however, faces to remember and ones you’re likely to see again. By the way, Gandolfini’s part is a cameo. He plays a character who can be inferred to be another Californian, Leon Panetta. License was taken to suggest that Mr. Panetta is a good deal heavier than he actually is, though.

Accents and rapid dialogue make some of “Zero” difficult to follow. But, unless you’re parsing the script for accuracy, what’s going on is pretty plain to see.

Bigelow’s film is significant and plays out as a rather neutral dramatization of an actual event, but the movie didn’t move me as much as her Oscar-winning “The Hurt Locker.” That film put you “inside” the several military personnel who also take great risks to do their job. On the other hand, “Zero Dark Thirty” has a quality like another film that also, as of Thursday, Jan. 10 (this week), sits among Oscar’s Best Picture nominations for 2012 releases: “Lincoln.” Seeing either “Lincoln” or “Zero Dark Thirty” is an excellent way to get the lay of important territory in American history.

But, since “Zero Dark Thirty” seems not to have any spoilers in it … let me toss one at you that’s really in the movie. Whenever the film is about to get really intense, the 007-ish music is brought up full; not composed, however, by the late, great Johnny Barry, but Alexandre Desplat.

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Gary Chew was a classical music host, programmer and producer on Capital Public Radio’s KXPR 88.9FM, Sacramento for 18 years. He retired in January 2007. Read more about Gary's long and storied career here.
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