I'd like to spank the Academy

Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

PrintDirected by Kathryn Bigelow

When I’m deciding which year of movies I want to watch next, sometimes I let a random number generator pick. But when I chose the movies of 2012, I had a very specific reason in mind: I was in the mood to watch an action movie. There haven’t been a lot of action movies nominated for best picture, but I was certain that 2012 had two: Zero Dark Thirty and Argo. I hadn’t seen either one, but I knew that Zero Dark Thirty was about the assassination of Osama Bin Laden, which was exciting, so it had to be an action movie, right? Guess what. I was wrong. Don’t get me wrong; it’s a fantastic movie. It’s definitely not an action movie, though.

So what’s the story? Maya is a young CIA operative sent to Pakistan to protect the US from future terrorist attacks. It takes her ten long years of ferreting out information from the thinnest threads, but she is finally certain that she knows where Osama Bin Laden is hiding. Now she just has to convince the rest of the CIA.

The Good: Jessica Chastain is fabulous as Maya, the woman who believes in what she’s doing and refuses to budge on what she believes is correct. She’s tenacious and single-minded and tough. She doesn’t care about what other people think and she’s not ever going to give up. The part itself may seem a little cold, but Jessica Chastain does an excellent job. Her acting makes the ending perfect.

The supporting cast is solid. I love it when a movie has even the smallest role perfectly cast, and Zero Dark Thirty is one of those movies. If I made a list of everyone who does an amazing job in this movie, it would be really long, so I will just mention a couple. Jason Clarke and Jennifer Ehle both make fantastic CIA operatives. Kyle Chandler is good as Joseph Bradley, Maya’s boss who doesn’t really believe in her lead, but who knows that ignoring her is a bad idea. Joel Edgerton and Chris Pratt make excellent Seal Team Six members. But again, everyone is so spot on that it’s hard to pick out the best people.

I’ve watched other movies based on historical events that play fast and loose with dates and places (cough, Elizabeth, cough). I appreciated how places and dates were so specific. I even like the “chapters” that helped keep the story moving and showed how time passed, because frankly, spy work seems to move very slowly sometimes, and it would have been boring if every single step that Maya made to draw the lines and make the connections had been shown.

I loved the beginning. The lack of any images made the voices of September 11th so compelling that it drew me in and made me remember my September 11th experience. I don’t think that could have been done nearly so well if scenes from that day had been splashed on the screen.

The soundtrack is amazing. Music is used sparingly, so that when it happens, it really makes an impact. Most of the action happens to natural noises, which makes it more realistic, and the occasional music unobtrusively underscores the emotion. That was an excellent choice.

The screenplay manages not only to tell the story of what happened, but to make the characters feel real and believable. They have backstories and lives outside of what’s going on thanks to the screenplay, which I understand was rewritten after Osama Bin Laden was killed. I think it would be fascinating to know what the ending was going to be before that happened.

The Bad: Even though we all know how the story ends, the tension during the Seal Team Six scene is almost unbearable. That’s probably a good thing from a storytelling point of view, but for me, it’s as uncomfortable as watching a horror movie, especially since there are innocents involved.

The Ugly: The first twenty minutes or so of the movie are mostly scenes of torture, and there are other scenes of torture throughout. Bigelow doesn’t pull any punches or soften these scenes, and they are hard to watch. I know a lot of people believe that torture is sometimes necessary; I don’t want to get involved in any discussion about that. I’m just saying that it’s not an easy thing to see, especially knowing that torture happens in real life.

Oscar Won: Best achievement in sound editing (tied with Skyfall).

Other Oscar Nominations: Best motion picture of the year; best performance by an actress in a leading role (Jessica Chastain); best writing, original screenplay; best achievement in film editing.

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