Oscars 2012 Best Picture Review: Zero Dark Thirty

Jessica Chastain plays Maya, a woman who means business in Zero Dark Thirty.

Jessica Chastain plays Maya, a fearless CIA agent who means business in Zero Dark Thirty.

-So Patrick, be honest with me. You really believe this story? I mean…Osama bin Laden?

-Yeah.

-What part convinced you?

-Her confidence.

9/11 movies aren’t very successful and rarely are they good. I don’t know if Zero Dark Thirty can rightfully be called a 9/11 movie but boy does it deliver well. Many can argue it’s the best film of the year.

The film opens in 2003 as a prisoner Amar, who is believed to have connections to Saudi terrorists, is questioned brutally by CIA officer Dan at the US embassy in Pakistan on the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden. He is joined by a young CIA officer, Maya, who has spent her entire brief career on intelligence related to Osama. Maya assists Dan in his humiliating torture on Amar at the black site until he confesses the name of Osama’s personal courier: Abu Ahmed. Other detainees corroborate the claim with some claiming there’s a middle-man between the two named Abu Faraj. Abu Faraj is captured in 2005 and Maya is able to interrogate him under torturous conditions. He denies Abu Ahmed but Maya suspects a cover-up.

The whole scenario is one long puzzle from 2003 to 2011 where Maya is trying to connect the pieces. Maya is trying to determine the identity of Abu Ahmed and trying to track his whereabouts or even existence with every piece of communication she can find. She interrogates prisoners. She searches for clues with every further incident associated with al-Qaeda that happens. During the time she’s able to go from a rookie CIA officer to a veteran over that period.

However the dark cloud keeps on lingering. Osama is still at large and sending tapes to al-Qaeda of his latest messages for broadcast. Terrorist attacks continue like the 2005 London bombings and the 2008 Islamabad Marriott bombings in which Maya is actually in the hotel dining with her friend Jessica and colleague. Both survive despite the explosion blowing a massive hole in the street. Even Maya survives being shot at.

It isn’t until the 2009 Camp Chapman attacks where a suicide bomber kills nine CIA agents including Jessica that marks a turning point. It’s there in a meeting with all those involved including Jessica that the head is disappointed with all and even humiliated that these many years have passed and Osama is still not caught. Terrorist attacks continue. None of the traces come up positive. Agents even concluded that Maya’s claim of Abu Ahmed is long dead and now a false trail. Soon Maya receives a lead from a researcher of the identity of Abu Ahmed. It isn’t until Maya is able to get a trace to the mother’s phone and even a sense of the use of tradecraft that the man really is Abu Ahmed and residing in an urban compound near a Pakistani military academy.

Months of heavy surveillance by the CIA fail to prove that bin Laden is there. Even Maya writes the number of ongoing days on her boss’ window. Finally a mission is planned to capture bin Laden in the compound but can only receive approval from Obama if it’s confirmed he’s there. Most of the CIA agents give certainty estimates ranging from 60 to 80% but Maya is 100% certain he’s there. The raid is given approval by President Obama on May 2nd. What takes place is history in the making. What is shown in the film will surprise even those most knowledgeable of the hunt for bin Laden.

The best thing about this movie is that it’s many things in one. It’s the story of the trace for the most wanted man in the world. It’s the story of a nation on a mission that’s long, complicating and frustrating as time goes by without success. It’s the story of one woman and her search to find that man. This is a multifaceted story that packs a lot into it. We see with each passing year and each passing additional terrorist attack committed by al-Qaeda how the search for Osama has to be done and how frustrating it is. We see from the people inside the government agencies the frustration they go through to find Osama with each passing year and with each additional terrorist attack. We also see from Maya her pursuit to find Osama through her computer work, questioning of those connected with al-Qaeda and her mappings out. But we also see her own personal involvement in the matter. She witnesses and questions the tortured prisoner. She’s with her friend and colleague in a hotel when an explosion happens. She loses that friend in another bomb explosion. She’s at the camp site when the mission to catch Osama is launched. This is as much Maya’s story and the U.S.’s story as it is about the hunt for Osama.

The funny thing is no one knows the identity of Maya. Many say she’s a certain different woman. Some say Maya is actually a combination of characters. All I can say is after this movie, she will be to the hunt for bin Laden what Deep Throat was to Watergate and we may never know her true identity until 30 or 40 years or even after her death. Only time will tell.

One thing to say about Zero Dark Thirty is that it has a lot of furious message board activity wherever anything to do about the movie is discussed; not just IMDB. I myself believe that Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda did in fact cause the 9/11 invasions and destruction. I refute the claims of the 9/11 ‘truthers’ because I’ve done my own research. I’ve known of terrorist acts before 9/11 committed by al-Qaeda ordered by Osama and of terrorist acts since. I have read the news and have kept on top of things from the start of 9/11 to the various intermittent terrorist attacks to al-Qaeda’s acknowledgement of the death of Osama bin Laden. I’m not afraid to dismiss the claims of “9/11 was an inside job” for the garbage that I see it to be.

I’m not sorry I believe this and I refuse to consider myself a sheep. In fact I consider the ‘truthers’ that declare 9/11 to be an inside job out loud to be propagandists instead of truthers. They care more about media attention through their opportunistic public demonstrations and violent destruction of public property than they do about the truth coming out. Sometimes it left me wondering if left-wingers love calling everything a lie. Hey I’m from Vancouver: the leftist crap-disturber capital of the world–Right, Harsha Walia?– and they’ve given me every reason to think that way about them. Osama and al-Qaeda carried the acts of 9/11 out. Osama was brought to justice by being killed May 1, 2011. They should keep their media whore cravings to themselves. Hey, don’t get me wrong; I’m all for free-thinking. But don’t shove it down my throat as the truth! I’ll decide the truth for myself. Besides I’ve been on message boards long enough to know message boards are so full of clowns, who needs a circus?

Also on message boards are people saying how the movie doesn’t denounce violence towards prisoners of war. Let me remind you this movie is to tell the story as it happens. It owes nobody an anti-prisoner violence message. Besides as far as war goes, we are living in a time with the closest to humane methods of war. We didn’t have ‘smart’ weapons back in the past as we do now. Up until 50 years ago we didn’t show concern for innocent civilian deaths. And back then we didn’t care how prisoners of war were treated. War was war, the enemy was the enemy and a POW was a POW. Osama had a huge network of colleagues carrying out his actions and torture was necessary. Besides have we forgotten this is prison?

Without a doubt the movie was all Jessica Chastain’s. Her performance of Maya was a very 3D role of a woman who had feelings but had to be tough both emotionally and mentally to find Osama after such a long search for him. That scene at the very end when she sees ‘her mission accomplished’ was especially remarkable. It will be no surprise if Jessica wins the Oscar this year. It’s not to say that Jessica was the only good performance. Jason Clarke’s performance as Dan and Jennifer Ehle’s performance as Jessica was also good too. Chastain’s brilliant performance however couldn’t have been done firstly without the excellent direction of Kathryn Bigelow and the writing of Mark Boal. I have to say that Kathryn Bigelow has to be the most fearless director in Hollywood and Zero Dark Thirty shows how fearless she can be in touching very touchy subject matter. Mark Boal is also just as fearless. He’s a former journalist who has written books and news articles on the Iraq War. He would also go on to write the screenplay for Bigelow’s other fearless film The Hurt Locker. Its critical accolades and Oscar success helped make a name for both Boal and Bigelow. Both team up again here and they both deliver excellently.

Another interesting note is Zero Dark Thirty’s box office run. The first Bigelow/Boal film The Hurt Locker won the 2009 Best Picture Oscar but only grossed $17 million at the US box office: the lowest gross for a Best Picture winner since 1960’s The Apartment. Zero Dark Thirty is another Bigelow/Boal film that packs a lot of punch and this time it pays off at the US box office as it currently has grossed $78.6 million as of press time and its chances of passing $100 million look healthy. Great to see.

Zero Dark Thirty takes a piece of history that we all know and gives us some things we didn’t know. The outcome is the most fearless film of 2012 and one of the best films of the year. Definitely worth seeing.

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3 responses

  1. Good review Jon. An award-worthy central performance from Jessica Chastain, an insightful script with incredibly sharp dialogue, an intense atmosphere throughout and one of the best climaxes to a film I’ve seen in a long time.

  2. Good review Jon. I really like the point you made about the depiction of torture in this film; I hadn’t thought about it like that.

  3. […] -Zero Dark Thirty- Argo isn’t the only movie trying to win Best Picture without a Best Director nomination. So is Zero Dark Thirty. Kathryn Bigelow definitely delivered one of the best directing efforts of the year if not the best. Even I consider her the most fearless director in Hollywood. Even more fearless than Tarantino. However I feel this movie had its best chances of winning Best Picture if Bigelow had a Best Director nomination at the least. I feel because of that snub, its Best Picture chances have sunk. It could still win due to the acting of Jessica Chastain or the scriptwriting of Mark Boal. However I feel it would be a long shot. […]

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