For those who don't know, Zero Dark Thirty is the tale of how Osama Bin Laden (OBL) was found and killed. If only it were that easy to describe it.
While dealing with a real-life event of this magnitude, there is so much that can go wrong : you can end up making it look like a documentary / you could make it an action thriller / you can show everything as black-and-white with pious good guys and evil bad guys.
ZD30, directed by Kathyrn Bigelow, smartly avoids all that and still gives you a wonderfully engaging movie. The film follows the exploits of CIA analyst Maya ( Jessica Chastain ) as she tracks down lead after lead and interrogates suspect after suspect in her singular obsession with killing OBL following the events of 9/11. After a decade of failure at every level, when an old lead resurfaces, she finds she has even more trouble, both from foreign allies as well as her own, to convince them of her reasoning.
Like certain other movies like Zodiac, Watchmen, V for Vendetta etc, this movie will polarize it's viewers : you either come out loving it or hating it.
To me, ZD30 is one of the best examples of 'the thrill of the chase' genre of movies. The main headlining event of the movie ( the attack and death of OBL ) lasts about 30 minutes in a 150 minute movie. But long before the DEVGRU special forces' helicopters lift off from their base, I was ready to give my thumbs up review. Even though the major part of the first half is behind claustrophobic office doors or illegal prisons, you do not find yourself bored for even a second.
Right from the chilling portrayal of the event of 9/11 ( a blank screen with the victims phone recordings overlapping each other till all goes static ) to the amazingly stifling portrayal of Pakistan as we've never seen before on celluloid ( Was it shot in India? I am curious. ), director Kathyrn Bigelow is at her best.
It helps that she has hand-picked one of Hollywood's best up and coming talents in the wiry Jessica Chastain ( equally impressive earlier in 'The Help', 'Take Shelter' and due next in the Guillermo Del Toro horror thriller 'Mama' ). The character of Maya starts off appalled over the torture/humiliation meted out to the terrorists captured, but quickly learns the tricks of the trade as her obsession takes over.
You have many other actors ( James Gandolfini, Kyle Chandler, Jason Clarke ) with significant forms of support and resistance to the chase, but in the end, it is still Maya's doggedness that stands out as watches her friends retire, reassign themselves or get killed over the years.
You get to see a behind-the-scenes look at newspaper headlines that covered a decade, now told from a more coherent point of view. The camera is surprisingly unsympathetic to the Americans themselves, showcasing some debasing forms of torture ( waterboarding, stripping the detainee in front of others, locking them inside small boxes ) while also handsomely bribing those who can be of use. Tracking a story from Saudi Arabia to Washington to Kuwait, Afghanistan and finally a nerve-wrecking final hour in Pakistan, credit must go to the writer Mark Boal for keeping the viewer engaged as the cat-and-mouse game progresses and lives are lost with each day the analysts fail to find OBL.
Even though you know how the raid will end, it is still mesmerising to watch it from a first hand point of view as it occurs. The attention to detail once we enter Abbottabad is simply amazing and based on all available reports of the actual site and event apparently.
Kathryn Bigelow won her first Oscar (defeating her ex-husband James Cameron's 'Avatar') for The Hurt Locker. Personally, I found this a lot more engaging and thought- provoking than that movie. The controversy of whether the movie glorifies the use of torture is a moot point to me : They are depicting events as they perceive to have occurred. There is nothing to be proud of in the act itself. The means maybe underhanded and illegal but they are deemed necessary to get what they want. There are no heroes in a war like this. To me, that sounds like real-life. Perhaps that is what hurt certain viewers.
On a final personal note, I found the Oscar nominations this year ridiculous. To even remotely suggest that there were 5 directors who did a better job than Kathryn Bigelow (and Hollywood's chocolate boy, Ben Affleck for Argo, now that I think of it) of portraying such a difficult, controversial script is simply silly. I can honestly say you will not get a more engaging, realistic and thought-provoking look into the events leading up to OBL's death than this movie.
Going by The Appletini review system, I'm giving this movie 5 out of 5.