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‘Zero Dark Thirty’ lands critical hit on target

Dylan Dobson, 4Play Editor
March 27, 2013
Filed under 4Play

The phrase zero dark thirty refers to the time half-past midnight. According to Kathryn Bigelow, director of the film of the same title as well as “The Hurt Locker,” it also refers to the shroud of darkness the military places over covert operations.

This Academy Award-nominated wartime drama focuses on the mission to apprehend U.S. enemy No. 1 — Osama Bin Laden. The main narrative of “Zero Dark Thirty” focuses on the career of a single CIA officer — the sassy, young, red-headed Maya, who, freshly plucked from college graduation, is completely dedicated to following a lead she hopes will aid in apprehending the al-Qaida leader.

The film travels through the innerworkings of the raid mission at breakneck speed, from intelligence gathering to the level of danger that agents face to the eventual raid itself. There are no spoilers here — many are well acquainted with the manhunt for Osama Bin Laden. However, there are some shocking moments that are artfully captured and leave the film suspenseful.

Through failure, survived bombings and shootings and endless red tape from skeptical officials higher up on the chain of command, Maya’s maddening focus and determination resounds. Her colleagues begin to worry about the stress she’s under and beg her to exit Pakistan for the U.S. It becomes apparent the hunt for Bin Laden is the sole focus of Maya’s life.

The end scene, where Maya realizes that the cat and mouse chase for the terrorist is over, is heartbreaking and raises questions of existential philosophy. After spending the past decade on a single assignment and having no friends or a family to call her own, Maya finds herself lost and without purpose, breaking down into tears.

Maya is portrayed by relative newcomer Jessica Chastain, who has already garnered much applause for her roles in films such as “Texas Killing Fields,” “The Help” and “Mama.” Chastain plays the part of a CIA agent with a subtlety that brings her performance on level to Frances McDormand’s performance in “Fargo” or Gillian Anderson’s Agent Scully in “The X-Files.” Maya is as strong a female lead as the modern world can muster — cold and professional yet human. She’s the kind of corporate cog one expects to find meddling within the top ranks of government bureaucracy, yet there’s a softness underlying the portrayal that will force audiences to relate and feel for her.

The film features a strong ensemble cast that serves to support Chastain’s portrayal as Maya. Jason Clarke and Jennifer Ehle bring memorable performances as Maya’s supportive co-workers. Their characters also serve as contrast to Maya’s cold and professional demeanor. Though no other character is able to steal the spotlight from Chastain for even a moment, Kyle Chandler, Chris Pratt from “Parks and Recreation” and John Barrowman of “Torchwood” all provide interesting cameo moments as various officials and military figures, filling in the cast of bureaucratic professionals that populate the film.

The film’s attention to detail is staggering. It’s extremely apparent that the filmmakers did their research. The narrative is cleanly tied up with historical context, all leading up to the finale, a night- vision action scene that covers the now infamous raid.

The film doesn’t show the raid as a triumphant victory for freedom. Instead, it opts for a more journalistic and somber view of the moment in stark contrast to the celebrations of death that would follow across the U.S.

Considering the objective lens through which director Bigelow presents the events of “Zero Dark Thirty,” it is extremely ironic that the film should have found such heavy-handed criticism for pushing an agenda. The film has been most notably criticized for its graphic scenes of torture, including waterboarding. While graphic, these scenes are in no way gratuitous. Arguments that the scenes support the use of torture as effective devices to obtain information are overblown. Instead, what is presented is a representation of the cost of the war and the loss of innocence suffered by the U.S. due to it.

Though “Zero Dark Thirty” failed to snag the Best Picture Oscar this year, it is nonetheless an essential viewing if, for nothing else, the performance of Chastain and its stern depiction of the war on terror.