It’s been three years since Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to ever win a Best Director Oscar for 2009’s much acclaimed The Hurt Locker. While I really liked that film, I was never a huge fan of it. I preferred Inglourious Basterds and Avatar, so sue me. So when it was announced that Zero Dark Thirty would be her follow up, I wasn’t too excited... up until these last few months, where I was suddenly becoming hyped for it. Not only did it meet my expectations, it exceeded them. It’s taken me almost a year of searching and about seventy movies to get to this point. Unless I find a movie from the very few I have left to see that overtakes this one, we’re probably looking at the very best 2012 has to offer.
The film chronicles the decade spanning manhunt for Osama Bin Laden, the vicious mastermind behind the bombings of 9/11, and the leader of the Al Qaeda organization, until he finally met his end at the hands of SEAL Team Six on May 1st, 2011. In the middle of all that, the audience observes the procedural happenings from the view of the task force charged with finding him. One of which is Maya (Jessica Chastain), a dedicated but also obsessive CIA officer.
What I love about Zero Dark Thirty is that it fine tunes and perfects every stumble that The Hurt Locker suffered from. Screenwriter Mark Boal’s episodic presentation is much more smooth and flowing, and is given more humanity than its predecessor. The movie not only holds our attention, it refuses to let go. It opens up fascinating views of morality, and it gives us a very interesting bunch of characters who never feel boring, all of which go well along with the looming suspense the film builds up.
The biggest strength of The Hurt Locker was Kathryn Bigelow’s ability to build tension and unpredictability to any given individual moment, and here, she proves just as capable. A simple look over the shoulder, a sudden movement, and even a change in vocal pitch can do wonders in the way she directs her actors. She rallies together impressive actors like Joel Edgerton, Mark Strong, and Jennifer Ehle. Of every one of them, Jessica Chastain is the unquestionable queen of the castle. After a banner year in 2011, she delivers a stunning lead performance, tough and steely when need be, but also fragile and conflicted at other times to keep Maya from feeling one note, and make her a believable character. She commands every scene with a fiery intensity, but also adds in a charisma that wasn’t called for, but was most welcome. I feel pretty confident in calling it the performance of the year.
As for Bigelow’s crafts people, these guys all bring their A game, and they know well how to enhance the tension throughout. Whether it happen on the visual side, or even on the aural side; from the shaky and involving camera work by Greig Fraser, to the claustrophobic settings of Jeremy Hindle’s production design, or from the startling booms and unsettling silence of Paul Ottosson’s sound design, to the brooding pulse rhythms of Alexandre Desplat’s musical score. Ultimately, the editing is the technical star. William Goldenberg, already having struck a home run with Argo this same exact year, is just as on the nose alongside Dylan Tichenor here. These two, as well as Bigelow, set the proper, but not always fast pace to this movie. It takes its time to set things up, but as a result, that entire final hour is a masterful example of film making. The raid on the compound, in particular, is a suspenseful sequence where every element comes together in the best way, where each moment had me biting my nails in anticipation. Bigelow’s direction is brilliant. Recently, the film was nominated for five Academy Awards, but none of those belonged to Bigelow herself for her direction. For them to drop the ball like this is an embarrassment, and nothing short of the snub of the year.
As enthusiastic as I may be, not everyone will like this movie nearly as much, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t see why. Regardless of that fact, I’d still recommend this movie to anyone. Something as fascinating as this movie deserves to be seen at least once. I know I’ve given multiple movies this year my highest possible rating, but many of those films do have noticeable faults, and they’d be closer to 9.5 out of ten on a numerical scale. Zero Dark Thirty is the only 2012 movie to earn a well deserved perfect rating of 10/10 from me. Bring on the rewatches!
***** / *****