Kathryn Bigelow. The lady knows how to make ’em. With the success of The Hurt Locker under her belt, it’s little wonder that this award season features so much buzz about her latest offering. Jessica Chastain has already scooped the Golden Globe for Best Actress and has the Oscars square in her sights. Although it’s a continuing source of bafflement that the Oscars can nominate a film for Best Film but snub its director, Bigelow still has a lot at stake this February 24th.
Zero Dark Thirty follows the hunt for Bin Laden, but not as you know it. This is not the Gitmo-headline military manhunt that we saw splashed all over the media for years; instead Bigelow opens the closed doors of the camps and black sites used by the CIA in their pursuit of America’s Most Wanted.
Chastain’s Maya is our way into the story as we follow her from her first interrogation to the infamous operation that led to Bin Laden’s assassination. Her performance is, quite frankly, stunning. Her presence is such that she’s as powerful saying nothing as she is screaming at the higher-ups holding her back. This bodes well for her, as dialogue is sparse. Her progression through the film as Maya becomes more and more single-minded puts her firmly in the heavyweight category.A
Anyone duped by the trailer into thinking this is going to be another Jarhead is in for an unpleasant surprise as this plays out more like All The President’s Men. Bigelow keeps it on a slow boil, building tension and keeping you glued to the screen. There’s a sense of danger prevalent throughout, as Maya navigates the Middle Eastern minefield of politics and terrorism. Unfortunately Bigelow pops the balloon a little too early. The film’s third act sidesteps into Call of Duty and everything becomes a foregone conclusion. In a rather bizarre turn from a female director in a movie with no male lead, Chastain’s character is virtually forgotten from the time the action kicks off until the last five minutes of the film. We see her left behind on the tarmac as the men go off to war. An occasional reaction shot hardly seems fair after she has carried the movie up until this point and I can’t help feeling that experiencing her tension, rather than what we already know to have happened, would have made a more compelling act three.
This movie was always going to have a tough time with the left claiming that it glorifies torture and the right claiming that the film’s crew were given access to classified material. The fact is that the film doesn’t express an opinion on what went on in the detainment camps. It simply presents what happened and there’s nothing glamourous or glorious about any of it. The scenes of torture are brutal and difficult to watch and while the characters may profess its necessity, none of them takes any pleasure from it. Rather than approve of it, we get the feeling that this is something that we must simply acknowledge took place, whether or not it should have.
Overall this is an outstanding exercise in cinema. Superbly shot and expertly paced, its shortcomings can’t overshadow its merits. Whether or not it manages to woo the Academy has yet to be seen, but while it might not take home Best Film, Best Actress is Chastain’s to lose.