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Movie review: Go see "Zero Dark Thirty"

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(10 stars)

(157 minutes, Rated R for graphic violence, war scenes, torture scenes, and language)

The cloud of controversy that "Zero Dark Thirty" generated during its national release last weekend has regrettably pulled focus away from where it should be — on an outstanding piece of filmmaking.

Sadly, this misplaced attention is grossly unfounded. Casual filmgoers, movie buffs, and Americans alike should run — not walk — to this movie, cough up their $10, and experience the entire two and a half hours because it is something rather spectacular.

Good filmmaking should do any number of things for its audience, least of which is entertain. But in the end, if the audience witnesses something they would never otherwise see, allows themselves to be educated to some degree, then challenges them to think about what it is they believe in life, that piece of art has done as it intended and much more.

Let me assure you, "Zero Dark Thirty" is a wonderfully challenging, brilliant piece of art.

The film tells the story of the decade-long hunt and subsequent killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011. (If this is a spoiler alert for you, then the world called and it wants you to leave.) The movie begins with a rather impressive choice with a black screen and an actual 911 emergency phone call from a woman trapped on the top floor of one of the World Trade Center towers on 9/11/01. We hear the operator try to calm her, but a flood of memories and the primitive emotion of wanting revenge on those responsible come rushing back.

Throughout the movie director Kathryn Bigelow (the only woman to win an Oscar for Best Director for "The Hurt Locker") continually challenges us with graphically intense scenes that create visceral and primal emotional responses, but she also gives us something intellectual that makes us pause for a moment. Bigelow is not shy about the language or the graphic nature, and if you have read anything about her you know she is trying to get the history as close (well, as Hollywood would let her) as she can to what really happened.

Immediately after the 911 phone call we meet our main protagonist, simply named Maya, played by soon-to-be-star Jessica Chastain, who is freshly arrived in Pakistan in 2003 and witnessing a torture/interrogation even before she can change clothes. Within this scene you can sense the conflict Chastain is experiencing as she watches the horrific act of a prisoner being water boarded but yet enjoins with its perceived necessity.

But therein lies the film's main dichotomy: Some (including me) find her presentation brilliant, but for whatever reason it is also its main source of controversy. Critics have castigated the film for glorifying torture, for giving it voice in that it is an effective tool for intelligence gathering. Actors (Ed Asner leading the charge and why is he still relevant again?) and politicians alike have been writing letters, campaigning against its winning any Oscars this February, and spouting any number of statistics. The other side has been saying that however awful torture is, it leads to information that saves American lives. To me the truth lies somewhere in the middle, but the bigger question remains: Is saving one American life worth torturing someone? How about one hundred? And who decides?

But know that Bigelow is not advocating torture here — but neither is she taking a side. She has written that, right or wrong, it was a part of American history at that time and to ignore it would be folly. What Bigelow is doing so beautifully is igniting the debate. Movies can lead to awareness and social change and there are many examples.  After viewing and considering this movie, we are thinking and talking about it beyond a visceral level.

That she is not nominated for best director for this movie, which is arguably superior to the exceptional "The Hurt Locker" from 2008, is a tragedy.

Bigelow also assembled an exquisite and talented cast. Chastain played her character with as much strength, grit, passion and intelligence that you would expect, but she also gave her an anti-social, unlikable quality that provides remarkable depth. She is stunningly expressive as an actress and her performance was as good as it gets.

The supporting actors were just as able, most notably Jason Clarke as a CIA field operative. Kyle Chandler and Jennifer Ehle also are standouts, as was James Gandolfini as Leon Panetta, then CIA director. Gandolfini is one of my favorite actors, and although heavier than Panetta is the spitting image of him (for whatever reason he felt compelled to send a note to Panetta apologizing for his wig and "everything else," but really neither of these guys are especially good-looking, so that is kind of hard to understand.)

Writer Mark Boal, who garnered an Oscar nomination for best original screenplay for this movie, used public documents and private contacts in writing this film. He does a stellar job of not getting sidetracked and moving the film toward its conclusion, which was stunning in every aspect of the word. While he has taken a great deal of criticism for the torture scenes and how he so accurately accessed this information so soon after bin Laden's death, he should be recognized for such great writing. It is also to his credit that he avoided all politics throughout as he never engaged the debate of Obama (why didn't he act quicker?) or Bush (why didn't he push harder to find him?) as leaders.

The last thirty minutes of the movie, however, are the best, and perhaps as good as you will ever see in the medium. Filmed in real time from the moment they landed, we watch the Navy SEALS encircle and storm bin Laden's compound. That scene, along with the more notable helicopter scene prior, (and composer Alexandre Desplat and the London Symphony Orchestra created a beautifully complex and haunting soundtrack), put you on the edge of seat — even though you know the end result — for an exhausting thirty minutes.

The locations, the set design (the replica of the bin Laden compound is simply surreal) and the cinematography are all exceptionally well-done. There was nothing that was overlooked or done poorly.

In the end you have a real sense of the magnitude of the scope of the event — how maddening and frustrating it was for the people involved in searching for bin Laden — and even more so, how frightening and then exhilarating the conclusion was. The feelings of respect and admiration that you have for those involved, no matter how repelled you were by their character or actions, are much greater at the end.

Do not listen to the critics who are trying to sabotage or waive off as many as they can. Go watch, understand, and draw your own conclusions. For those who saw it and thought it only so-so, perhaps they don't understand that good film challenges you to think, debate and consider what you believe. Nor do they understand that the best drama comes from history.

While this film most likely will not win, it is the Best Picture of the Year.

I give it 10 out of 10 stars.

About the Author
Who was that mysterious man you saw in the theater last night? You tried to get a look at him but he quickly disappeared in a puff of smoke, his cackle trailing in the air, leaving behind his calling card: a half-eaten box of popcorn and a lukewarm soda. He is Our Movie Reviewer named Tim!