Watch an action movie from the 1980s (or earlier), then watch ”Zero Dark Thirty”. You’ll realise that for all the lamenting about creative bankruptcy in Hollywood with all its sequel, prequels and superheroes, many big screen films are much higher quality than movies ever were.
Not necessarily better – original ideas are still thin on the ground – many movies just have far more realistic execution. Watch any studio pic from the 1940s. There was a performance and a staging style, more akin to the delivery stage actors and craftspeople were used to (which makes sense, as a lot of them probably had lost of experience in the theatre in those days). Speech, dialogue, emotion and even blocking were all highly stylised because it was the fashion of the time.
Somewhere along the way movies got realistic, and where once upon a time you’d never see a movie character sweat, swear, cry, bleed or sneeze, some movies today are as close to reality as you’re ever likely to get. I was struck with this thought watching Zero Dark Thirty because I respond to naturalistic performances with dialogue written the way people talk in the real world.
The trappings and delivery in Kathryn Bigelow’s follow up to her Oscar-botherer ”The Hurt Locker” trick you into thinking her film is far worthier than it really is. Not that the killing of Osama Bin Laden isn’t a worthy subject, but ”Zero Dark Thirty” is just an action thriller. The realism makes you believe it’s a military drama, where it’s very high quality action thriller, but it’s still an action thriller (and in the right hands, even action movies can win Oscars – just look at ”The Hurt Locker”).
As I write this I’m yet to read the Wikipedia entry into the real hunting and killing of America’s most hated enemy since the commies, so I don’t know which parts are fact or fiction. But Jessica Chastain, again proving she’s at home in any genre, plays a driven CIA agent who spends the better part of her 12 year career on the trail for the Al Qaida leader.
After a harrowing few minutes of emergency September 11 calls against a black screen, we meet Maya (Chastain), assisting with the psychological and physical torture of Muslim prisoners in one of America’s secret bases while her and her team try to extract any information they can about future attacks.
We can see Maya’s not entirely comfortable with the treatment she witnesses at the hands of a colleague, but after we move forward a few years through America’s lacklustre performance stopping further killings (including July 2005 in London) and the aftermath of the torture revelations, most of the world seems to want to forget September 11. But Maya pursues every avenue with a doggedness that puts even her superiors in her Pakistan base station offside, stitching together clues from whispered conversations, name spoken by inmates on decade-old recordings of interrogations and the nose of a detective.
When she closes in on the Abbottabad compound, her new sense of urgency is thwarted by official reluctance to do anything without more evidence. When the powers that be eventually agree to launch the assault (when simply bombing the compound off the face of the earth was an option), the final half hour of the film is a darkened action film climax of the SEAL team flying stealth choppers to the compound, sneaking in and killing most of the people inside, including Bin Laden.
It feels long and it is, having been rewritten when it was announced Bin Laden had been found and killed, originally planned as the failed attempt to track him. I’ll bet Bigelow and Sony breathed a huge sigh of relief it didn’t happen six months later – it would have rendered the film as redundant as Paula Broadwell’s book about David Petraus when their affair came out.
It’s also hard not to review it and address the political fallout, with US officials issuing statements saying it’s only fiction and several left-leaning personalities calling it ‘pro torture’. All the reaction proves is how politicised movies are nowadays. We all know the US tortured detainees in is secret bases – Bigelow does too. Zero Dark Thirty doesn’t take sides about it being justified – or even ask if it is – it simply shows it happening.
But it’s a very solid and mature thriller and is a shoe-in for Oscars in at least some technical categories. All of which reminds me of the late 1990s, when the best golfer in thw world was black (Tiger Woods) and the best rapper white (Eminem). What’s the world coming to when the best action film director around is a woman?
Extras : Commentary, deleted scenes, and four brief but insightful featurettes compliment a good-looking/sounding release.