Thursday, January 10, 2013

A Masterwork

Zero Dark Thirty, the story of the ten year manhunt for Osama Bin Laden is a great, great film. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow and written by Mark Boal, the film is part war movie, part suspense film and part a look at how the world has changed so much since that fateful day of September 11, 2001. This is Bigelow's finest work to date and is a masterwork; it is, in my opinion, the finest film of 2012.

Bigelow, who directed her first feature film in 1982, became an overnight success with her work on The Hurt Locker (2008), for which she won as Oscar as Best Director (the film was also named Best Picture at those same ceremonies). That film centered on an elite Army squad stationed in Iraq, whose job it was to diffuse and disarm bombs in everyday locales.

The focus on that film was more limited, as it dealt with three soldiers on that team and how the dangerous work they were assigned to affected their lives. Both Bigelow and Boal, who also penned the screenplay for Hurt Locker, were careful not to make overt political statements in that film, preferring to present these soldiers as brave men who dealt with incredible risks on an everyday basis. The Hurt Locker was not pro-war, nor was it anti-war - it was pro-soldier. It was also a superb film in which the viewer's heart was pounding throughout most of the action.

Zero Dark Thirty continues Bigelow's and Boal's fascination with the Iraq war, but the canvas here is much broader, as the film's primary subject matter is how the CIA must gather the information to capture Osama Bin Laden, the man who masterminded the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The film opens with a black screen, as we hear noises of cries in the buildings that were destroyed as well as phone calls to loved ones who knew they were going to die that day.

The film's center is a young female agent named Maya (Jessica Chastain). Her first scene has her with a team of agents who are interrogating a low-level member of Al Qaeda. Her superior, Dan (Jason Clarke in a very nice, natural performance) tells this Iraqi that if he is lied to, he will hurt him. He does so, as he begins waterboarding his prisoner in order to make him reveal a name or two. Maya turns away in horror and after Dan momentarily leaves this small cel, tries to comfort the prisoner with a few words.

But Maya - her character is based on one particular agent who has never been identified - is soon immune to these sessions as she becomes more hard-boiled and realizes the importance of her work; she has to come up with names and pieces of information that will lead to the capture of Bin Laden. Her social life is non-existent, as she becomes a workaholic, thriving on the scrutiny of her assignment. She dines in, telling a fellow agent not to eat out, as it's "too dangerous."

It is this single mindedness of her character that eventually makes her stand out in her work and get noticed, in both good and bad ways. She is convinced that one particular member of Al Qaeda - whom she has been told is deceased - is indeed still living and that if she can find him, that will be the key to the CIA's years of effort. Her bosses yell at her, telling her she is crazy and is following a ghost trail, but she perseveres, leading to her new station chief agreeing to let her have the resources she wants for her latest request. Maya looks puzzled, as though this is too easy, but as her boss tells her, "I learned from my predecessor that it's much easier not arguing with you."

What I like about this character is that we're not given some cheap psychology as to why she acts the way she does. We accept that she is lonely and that the love of her work drives her. Clearly, the fact that she's one of the few women assigned to this sort of detail is another key to her behavior. In one of the few comic moments of the film, Maya is the only woman at a high level meeting at CIA headquarters in Langley, VA in which the department head Leon Panetta (nicely portrayed by James Gandolfini) notices her and asks her who she is. Her reply? "I'm the motherfucker who found the house," (referring to the compound where she belives Bin Laden is hiding), is a clear sign that she needs to take on a ballsy attitude if she is to survive in her job.

Maya's dedication and tireless efforts - along with the help of her fellow agents - convince the CIA to argue that the President order the attack on the compound to kill Bin Laden. This is the last thirty minutes of the film and it's white knuckle, edge-of-your-seat time during this extended sequence. A good part of it is filmed in night vision photography, which adds a mysterious, eerie, slightly dangerous edge to an already volatile situation. Of course, we know how this will turn out - Bin Laden is killed - so that makes the suspense in this scene even more impressive. I like how the key moment of the scene is presented, without calling attention to itself; in fact the soldiers who are there are not even certain that the individual they killed is Bin Laden. It becomes a job for these soldiers and while they know the importance of their mission, the tone of this part of the film is not revenge, but merely completing an assignment.

I mentioned that this is Bigelow's finest work so far; I can't say enough about how accomplished her direction of this film is. She never goes to any great lengths to wring the sentiment out of a scene; clearly the emotions and details of the story are dramatic enough. I alluded to her handling of the assault on the compound, but there are two scenes in particular that are of equal quality; one is a recreation of a bombing in a restaurant and the other, the cross cutting between Maya and her fellow agent Jessica (Jennifer Ehle) texting each other about an Iraqi informant whom Jessica is meeting. Maya is in her office, far away from this encounter and we see her anxiously await the next online text from her colleague. It's a tense scene that turns somber and it's a beautiful expression of the devastating emotions arising from sudden loss of life.

I am also greatly impressed with the cinematography of Greig Fraser. Much of the discussion of his work will center on the night vision photography of the assault on the compound, but Fraser's work throughout is stunning. Much of the film is during the day and he uses natural light instead of arc lights, rendering small shafts of sunshine on the faces of the main characters. There's an orange glow in the background of one of the film's final images, as Maya looks to see if the murdered man in the body bag is indeed Bin Laden. The way Fraser lights this combined with Bigelow's (and Fraser's?) classic composition, is a highly moving moment, one that perfectly captures the appropriate mood.

I'd also like to praise Alexandre Desplat for his beautiful score. Desplat has, in my opinion, been the finest composer for films over the past half dozen years; classically trained, his scores have been filled with lovely melodies for full symphonies. But for this work, as is proper, his music is subdued, often very quiet; it serves the film at it should, merely adding a bit of texture and it never announces itself. In fact, you may not even remember the score after you see the film, which is rather high praise, as it never gets in the way. There are numerous composers that can deliver a pretty tune for a film, but few that can write as emotionally well as Desplat.

The film is a superb look at this incident in the recent history of America. While Bigelow and Boal again go out of their way not to make political statements (or to praise or condemn any particular administration), there are disturbing scenes of torture early on in the film. To not show these scenes or to not refer to them would have been dishonest. But the film does not advocate torture and it does not argue that such torture had great effects on the CIA's success in gathering information. Others have claimed it does and this had led to a media firestorm, as early praise of this film has been somewhat tempered. Certainly the snub by the Oscars in not nominating Bigelow as Best Director is more than likely rooted in this aspect. It is unfortunate that this misrepresentation of the film's message has arisen. One wonders if some of the people making these claims even saw the film or if they did, had their minds already made up before they entered the theater. Upon the conclusion of the film, I thought to myself that here was a film everyone could agree upon. Given the constant moaning and groaning in the country, I should have known better.

This controversy aside, this is great filmmaking technically and spiritually. It gives us a character that is a true American at heart, one who will suffer for the sake of the common good. We all felt a terrible blow on 9/11 and this film tells us how dedicated we as Americans are in fighting for what we believe in. We may make mistakes along the way, but in this instance, we succeeded in ridding the world of one of its most evil individuals.

I want to point out that this is not a jingostic film; this is not about the might of America, but about the right of humanity to live without fear. The end credits remember the victims of 9/11 as well as the bombing of the passenger bus in England as well as those who perished in other terrorist attacks. This is a nice touch by the filmmakers and it's clear that Bigelow and Boal remembered these victims as they made this film. For that, they can be proud.