Zero Dark Thirty

19 Jan

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Synopsis: “A chronicle of the decade-long hunt for al-Qaeda terrorist leader Osama bin Laden after the September 2001 attacks, and his death at the hands of the Navy S.E.A.L. Team 6 in May 2011.” (Rated R; 2 hours 37 minutes)

How do you surprise people watching a movie where they know the ending? This isn’t a new concept of course. I still remember in 1997 when Titanic was going to be released half my friends were mocking the idea that it’s going to be so dumb watching a movie where you clearly know that the iceberg is going to sink the ship, so what’s the point of watching. Or to give a lesser known story done more recently, Argo came out and although it was only a relatively recently declassified true story, most people knew the ending before they saw the movie. It was basically discussed in promoting the movie, not even treated as a spoiler. Clearly in both examples, great movie-makers were able to demonstrate that there are ways to show the journey to get to that ending that can not only interest and entertain you, but can even scare you and keep you at the edge of your seat wondering, “How the hell are they going to pull this off?!” while at the same time realizing that you know they WILL because you know the ending.

How awesome it is when a director can accomplish such a great feat as that! It’s almost like a magic trick where the director/magician taunts the audience, “You’re going to know how this ends, and that you’ll be alright, but I’ll scare you into doubting what you know anyway.” James Cameron did it with Titanic by giving us fictional characters to root for with their own story, thus we actually didn’t know what was going to happen with them. In addition to following the “Kate & Leo” storyline he presented the most amazingly terrifying crash-sequence that we could have even imagined, and watching that act of the movie, even when knowing that it was going to happen…WOW. Ben Affleck with Argo and Kathryn Bigelow with Zero Dark Thirty did it without making it about fictional characters and side stories, they simply created a damn exciting narrative that hooks us into seeing HOW we got to the amazing end results that we got to. Not what happens at the end that’s at stake, but HOW the heck did those Americans get saved by a fake film crew in Argo. And not what happens at the end of Zero Dark Thirty but HOW the heck did the CIA and this one woman in particular find and kill Osama? And the results are amazing – in both movies.

At times I felt like I was watching great episodes of The Wire, watching the slow but satisfying intricacies and politics that went into getting each piece of intel that sloooooowly led to catching Osama. At other times I felt like I was watching great episodes of Homeland, watching the tense interrogations of terrorists and action sequences in dangerous parts of the Middle East.
Never did it once suffer from the usual manipulations of overt manipulated feelings and cheesiness like most Spielberg movies (as well as my recently reviewed The Impossible) have, and I say that while acknowledging that I am capable of loving those movies in spite of that. I certainly appreciate when a movie is raw and doesn’t hit you over the head with moments where the main character says a cheesy important line while the music swells and everyone in the theater is forced to cry, it’s a useful but cheap trick, and this movie never stooped to that level.

The acting was always top notch. Jessica Chastain was damn solid and believable, in a very straight-forward role of a woman obsessed with her mission in life. In some ways she was Javert obsessed with catching Jean Valjean, and she was a heck of a lot better cast than Russell Crowe was playing Javert in Les Miserables. I also really liked Jason Clarke, and forgot for most of the movie that he, Mark Strong and Jennifer Ehle were all faking American accents but did them so well that I didn’t have to think twice about it!

The movie was quite long, and although I wouldn’t say the time flew by, it went by very satisfyingly. It didn’t have the entertaining comic cocky energy of Jeremy Renner from The Hurt Locker and was a more straight-forwardly serious movie, but I was always fascinated as to how the next piece of the puzzle would come through; and when the actual raid on Osama happens at the end, boy are you excited for every second of it!

It’s a close call, but the movie was slightly better than Kathryn Bigelow’s last great film, The Hurt Locker, due to it being based on a true story that keeps us captivated to see how they got from A to Z. It was worse than…Saving Private Ryan, a movie I still consider the greatest war movie ever made (due mostly to its opening 30 minutes).

Quality Rating: A+

Boaz Rating: A+ (I realize many people expect these ratings to be different more often, but as long as I keep seeing Oscar movies that I truly love AND think deserve to be loved, it’ll be on the same page. Soon enough I’ll be seeing movies that I like far more than they deserve, and you’ll see as much in my resulting scores!)

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5 Responses to “Zero Dark Thirty”

  1. zralston January 20, 2013 at 9:43 am #

    I agree with you completely. Better than The Hurt Locker, very tight procedural, fast-paced. And I think at times it makes Homeland look like The Big Bang Theory.

    I do think it’s crazy to call SPR the best war movie ever — don’t forget that the first 5 of those first 30 minutes are a schmaltzy prologue at Hanks’s grave before flashing back. For my money I’ll take The Thin Red Line, Apocalypse Now, Glory, and Full Metal Jacket over SPR.

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  2. boazconstrictor January 20, 2013 at 10:31 am #

    Thanks Zach, love that you follow the blog and are one of the most knowledgable people inevitably to do so!
    Eh, you’re talking to the wrong person regarding The Thin Red Line, I feel about Terrence Malick movies like I’m watching beautiful, artful paint dry. His are literally my example in my description of my ratings system of the instance when I’ll give a higher quality rating than Boaz rating. 🙂
    I do think that the training portion of Full Metal Jacket is one of the greatest scenes of a war movie of all time. And I do also agree that those first 5 minutes of Saving Private Ryan BEFORE D-Day commences are usual B-movie Spielberg schmaltz, but the D-Day scene is what I was referring to, and I still think it’s the scariest, most real, greatest war movie ever because of those 25 minutes or so.
    My second favorite war movie of all time? Very different direction: The Bridge on the River Kwai. Unbelievable movie, to this day.

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Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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