Zero Dark Thirty Review: The Hunt from Behind the Desk

It is impossible to review or discuss Zero Dark Thirty without addressing the use of torture in interrogation.  This isn't because it is a prevalent part of the film, because during the total 2 and half hours running time, it probably takes up 30 minutes at the very most.  It is the first 30 minutes and so the scenes are what jump out at you and stick inside your brain for a good portion of the viewing experience.  The film isn't actually about torture, but it is those scenes that have caused most of the controversy and debate surrounding this movie.

Does Zero Dark Thirty condone torture?  The quick response from me would be no, but there is a real debate, because there is enough fuel for both sides.

The torture scenes don't resemble something from 24, and there is nothing visceral from the experience.  The torture may be happening to someone involved with the tragedy that was 9/11, but the scenes don't play out like a revenge fantasy.  It is stomach churning and uncomfortable, and you'll find yourself begging for it to stop.  You'll feel there must be some other way to extract the evidence.  But some of the controversy comes from the fact that the film doesn't provide a solid answer on if there is a better way.  Well, it doesn't spell it out, but the story unfolds in a way that you could find some backing that the torture was unnecessary.

Zero Dark Thirty isn't didactic; there now clearly laid out message.  It is still trying to tell you something.  You can still see the detrimental effects of using torture.  The CIA officers are emotionally shaken and left scurrying to the bathroom to "recover" from the events.  The torture takes a physical and emotional toll on every one of the officers, even if they never actually admit to it.  There are scenes of officer shaking, retching, and crying, and you realize torture isn't something they can ever get fully comfortable with.

There is never an outright message that screams torture is wrong.  It doesn't even get much more mention after those opening scenes, except to show the Obama regime won't tolerate those tactics anymore.  This isn't a movie that sends out a clear black and white message.  Instead, it is look into the CIA business of hunting down Osama.  The audience gets to peek into through the crack in the door and see how a secret operation comes together.  Then it is up to the viewer to use the data to cobble together a road that leads to a conclusion on what everything really means.

This isn't to say everything in this film is accurate or historical.  That has been another entirely different controversy with the CIA claiming the opposite.  This may be closer to a work of fiction than fact.  Torture may not have been a part of hunting down Osama Bin Laden.  Despite what may be reality, we do know that torture was something endorsed by Dick Cheney and was used as a form of interrogation.  There really hasn't been a film that has ever address torture in such a matter of fact way, but still hit you so hard in the gut.  It makes you sympathize with a terrorist and knocks you with the realization what a dirty business war can be.

The real profound moment is when you realize this whole search for Osama is a business.  The CIA officers treat it like a job just like an accountant trying to balance the books or a programmer trying to fix all the bugs in the latest software.  Maya (Jessica Chastain) has moments of near emotional breakdown and the job takes its toll, but for the majority of the film, she is focused on the task and not personally connected to the issue.  She may lose close friends or trying to hunt down the man who tore apart the soul of her nation, but her actions are motivated through the need to accomplish her job.

It is almost impossible to make such a personal issue remain as just a job.  This is where Jessica Chastain shows her brilliance as an actor.  She performs a character that is strong and independent and you believe is capable, but also incorporates moments of fragility and brokenness.  There are scenes when her emotion flies and you see the passion of Maya, but for the most part, the characters emotions and feelings are played in a subtle fashion.  Chastain uses the right mannerism, facials, and vocal tone to demonstrate what is boiling inside her character.  This performance is evidence of why Chastain is one of the best actors around.

Her performance is what helps bring forth the tension and drama of the picture.  This is a film full tension, which is impressive since a huge portion of it takes place in offices and conference rooms.  Director Kathryn Bigelow masterly crafts a suspenseful thriller that we all know the end to, and doesn't incorporate the typical big shoot outs and car chases.  It does have moments of action, and the final 30 minutes is one of the most intense and blood pumping scenes in cinematic history, but for the most part, the thrills and suspense come from the characters' reactions and the tension created from the stress overwhelming a group trying to chase down Osama Bin Laden for 10 years.

I wouldn't consider Zero Dark Thirty a pro military film.  Nor would I sad it is anti-military.  Much like the torture issue, it just a film that presents actions that could be deemed good or bad, but leave it to the viewer to come to a conclusion.  It is intriguing seeing the different responses from the troops after a successful mission.  You have the subdued and the emotionally drained, but then you also have some acting just like he scored the winning touchdown.  The varied responses bring a humanity to the film, and shows how each person is affected by events differently.

Zero Dark Thirty is very different than what usually is offered up in Hollywood.  The pacing is slower and it doesn't attempt to get you attached to the characters.  Everything remains in the offices and on the field, and you don't get much of a glimpse into the personal lives.  But you still have moments when you connect with the characters and feel the turmoil they're going through.  Even if the film takes its time to tell the story, you'll still have your adrenaline rocketing to the roof.

The different style of film making left me wondering how I really felt about the movie.  I knew it was well made.  It triggered a lot of discussion.  It did the things I want from a film.  It also dug deep into the world of the CIA and didn't try to explain or guide through the terminology and actions.  Sometimes, I was left wondering if this is how it really was done, or what exactly was happening.  Plus there were times I just wished I could know more about Maya, and get a deeper inspection into the characters I was spending so much time with.

It is a very different kind of war film.  It doesn't glorify war or make it seem exciting.  It won't get you grabbing for a rifle and wanting to shoot down the enemy.  It is a dark and gritty world that doesn't really breed heroes.  It instead breaks people, and forces them to do things they may struggle to comprehend.  It also doesn't outright speak out against military or war or the actions of the United States.  Instead, it offers a message that either side of the debate can get something.  It shows the need for military might, but also the dangers of military involvement.

It is a thought provoking and riveting film.  You may walk out feeling like you got punched in the gut.  You may not be captivated throughout.  You will definitely think and feel something.  Zero Dark Thirty has left a profound mark on current cinema and will likely engage debate for a long time to come.

The Short and Sweet:  Jessica Chastain shines with a brilliant performance in this unconventional and thought provoking war drama from exceptional auteur, Kathryn Bigelow.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars