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FITS AND STARTS On Digital & VOD December 5

ZERO DARK THIRTY Review. It Ain't Pretty

By: MattInRC

The mammoth ZERO DARK THIRTY is a brilliant production, but be prepared - it ain't pretty.


As someone caught in the middle of the insanity of 9/11 (my wife and I were on vacation in Virginia at the time), I admit to having felt a spike of joy when President Obama announced the killing of Usama bin Laden in 2011. To me, the death UBL was the end of a dark chapter, but certainly not the end of the bigger book on worldwide terrorism. So much has changed since 9/11, as if any remaining shred of our innocence was lost. But while films like ZERO DARK THIRTY attempt to provide a kind of therapy for our tortured souls, we're still left wondering whether our country can ever return to normal. Thirty doesn't stray into that territory, settling instead on the pressure placed on human beings as they undertook the hunt for the most wanted man in America. The result is an engrossing effort that's at once hard to watch yet impossible to turn away, but filled with tedious moments as well.

Starting with a montage of terrifying 911 calls from The Twin Towers, ZERO DARK THIRTY moves to a water board scene in some distant safe house, led by a CIA operative named Dan (Jason Clarke, Lawless). With him is the new hire Maya (Jessica Chastain, Lawless), who at first finds the whole interrogation to be uncomfortable.. But given time and tragedy (including her attempted assassination), she soon develops the tough outer skin that's so needed in these kinds of endeavors. Eventually, Maya takes over the stage, becoming the lead investigator and cheerleader for UBL's demise. Characters like Dan come and go throughout the story, but this is ultimately Maya's tale and she orchestrates the operation perfectly. You already know how Thirty will end: if not, you've been living in the forest for too long and it's time to come home. That doesn't change how tense and engrossing this film can be at times, especially when Seal Team 6 begins their assault on UBL's compound. In between, however, there's long periods of deep spycraft that some might find boring; and while I found myself sometimes questioning Director Kathryn Bigelow's (The Hurt Locker) for showing us Maya plinking at a keyboard, it eventually all makes sense in the larger scope of the film. Spycraft is certainly not James Bond - although Skyfall certainly made a good case for its view of it - and the various twists and turns Bigelow places before us are meant to get the audience more involved with Maya's hunt, to personalize it, along with the tension and inner rage that develops in searching for UBL. When action does come, it's eminently more satisfying. If that's the intent, then mission accomplished.  

Bigelow uses A-List actors like pawns in her chess game, checking the board with a Mark Strong (Sherlock Holmes) and a James Gandolfini (The Sopranos), while Joel Edgerton (Warrior) Frank Grillo (Warrior) and Chris Pratt (Moneyball) waits in the shadows to pop the king with his MP-5. Give credit as well to Writer Mark Boal, who sends a clear message about what all Americans have become as a result of our decade-long pursuit. Torture is a part of the spy game, and whether one accepts it or not, the film captures it as it should be: a tool that's part of a much bigger game. From an artistic viewpoint, it's what gives Thirty such undeniable street cred, even if the final result is hard to deal with.

ZERO DARK THIRTY is an amazing film, but one you can't watch more than once. You'll find yourself stuck between enjoying this excellent production, and then not wanting to see it again. It's that heavy and intense, a fact that might keep audiences from repeat screenings, something that a blockbuster desperately needs. Yet I don't suspect Bigelow made the film with that in mind; its anti-moralistic message leaves the audience to decide if the last 11 years was worth it, yielding what I hope will be interesting conversations about our decidedly darker times. In that way, Thirty perfectly fits the times in which we live, even though that message takes some time to deliver. Zero Dark Thirty is rated R for violence, nudity, and language and has a runtime of 157 minutes.

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