Movie Review: Zero Dark Thirty [2012]

Zero Dark Thirty [2012]

Zero Dark Thirty [2012]
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Writers: Mark Boal
Genre: Drama/History/Thriller
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Ehle, Mark Strong, Joel Edgerton and Chris Pratt
Running Time: 157 minutes

When Osama Bin Laden was killed by American forces a year and a half ago, a movie release was inevitable. How could Hollywood pass up such a juicy story as the hunt for the man responsible for the deaths of 3,000 innocent Americans? Although such a film was expected, it was still a surprise to see it released the very next year. Even more shocking is that it is a damn good film getting all sorts of Oscar buzz, although it certainly helps to have the talented Kathryn Bigelow at the helm.

Zero Dark Thirty begins in 2003 with the introduction of Maya (Jessica Chastain), a CIA officer who has been reassigned to work at the U.S. embassy in Pakistan. She is teamed up with Dan (Jason Clarke), a fellow officer who has been interrogating detainees as to the whereabouts of Osama Bin Laden (“UBL”) and other Al-Qaeda terrorists. As this is the early 2000s and during the Bush administration, this involves gratuitous torture, much of which we are there to witness. In fact, many have deemed these scenes to be controversial, some stating that they glorify torture. I don’t see it that way, as none of the interrogators are actually enjoying the torture, especially not Maya, who seems startled by it at first. It’s also hard to say just how much the torture helped in the hunt to find Bin Laden — it’s not like the only helpful information came from those who were abused. But I digress.

Zero Dark Thirty [2012]

A few years later, Maya has her eyes on a well-concealed man known as Abu Ahmed. She is determined to find him, whose whereabouts are unknown according to every detainee she talks to. Others involved in the CIA, including the top chief Joseph Bradley (Kyle Chandler), tell her she is wasting her time. Yet Maya is anything if not persistent.

It’s a long paper trail to Osama Bin Laden, and when the CIA finally believes to have discovered his location, they are anything but certain. Everyone involved have varying levels of confidence as to whether or not “UBL” is in the targeted compound, and there is a great deal of uncertainty as to whether or not they should go through with the raid. Of course, we all know how this plays out, but it’s still fascinating to watch as we follow the breadcrumbs leading to the world’s most wanted fugitive.

Zero Dark Thirty [2012]

While many are bound to praise the scene during the final raid inside Bin Laden’s fortress, I found the thrill of the hunt to be far more enthralling. I only vaguely remembered hearing about some of the “smaller” terrorists attacks over the years, and it was quite stunning to see them reenacted on screen. Watching Maya piece together every lead or hint she found became an intriguing process, even if the end result was known.

Perhaps most interesting is that the film focuses so heavily on a female’s perspective. I was not aware that Maya (or rather, her real-life counterpart) had such a crucial role in the pursuit of Bin Laden, and without her persistence it’s hard to say whether he would still be alive. The role of Maya is played admirably by Jessica Chastain, who continues to rise to the occasion with every new role she takes. Maya’s progression (or rather, deterioration?) over the last decade is remarkable, as she toughens up with every attack, even becoming a bona fide badass by the end.

The rest of the cast is impressive as expected, another who’s who of great character actors. Jason Clarke and Kyle Chandler have important roles in the CIA, the former of which caught my eye as someone I hadn’t even heard of before. Familiar faces such as James Gandolfini, Mark Strong, Jennifer Ehle and even Mark Duplass all make welcome appearances, each playing a small, but important part in the film.

Zero Dark Thirty [2012]

While Zero Dark Thirty succeeds in many areas, I am a little surprised by the overwhelming praise surrounding it. The film’s running time — nearly three hours — could have used a little trimming, and the final raid was surprisingly anticlimactic. It’s kind of amazing that the operation had so many mistakes and yet the mission was still accomplished; however, this is well-known information and still fresh in the mind. Perhaps with a few years perspective, this could have been more riveting.

Regardless, I rather enjoyed the film overall, and any reservations I have had are relatively minor in the grand scheme of things. Bigelow has been on a roll lately, and it will be interesting to see where she goes next.

8/10

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Movie Review: Contagion [2011]

Contagion [2011]

Contagion [2011]
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Genre: Drama/Sci-Fi/Thriller
Language: English
Country: USA

Pandemic movies are hardly anything new. More often than not they tend to delve into far-fetched scenarios where zombies run rampant and feast on human flesh. In this regard, Contagion is almost like a breath of fresh air. There are no zombies, and the situation is entirely feasible.

The movie focuses on a rapidly progressing virus outbreak, not unlike the swine flu, that kills those that come in contact with it in a matter of days. It is unknown where this virus came from, at least initially, and it becomes a worldwide concern as the medical community frantically attempts to develop a vaccine. Meanwhile, people everywhere are freaking out, causing mayhem to the streets and others while trying to avoid getting sick. To put it bluntly, this is total chaos.

Contagion [2011]

Rather than dwelling on an individual story or small group of people directly involved in one aspect of the pandemic, director Steven Soderbergh chose to follow people from all over the world. The movie keeps tabs on regular folk, doctors, scientists and even conspiracy theorists. The fact that the movie is spread out with so many different subplots is both a blessing and a curse. I loved the global feel of the movie, as we saw viewpoints from all over the world. However, with so many characters introduced and then dropped in and out of the main storyline, it becomes difficult to feel any connection to them. The multi-character arc is a great idea, but a few characters here and there could have probably been cut out.

I also noticed some issues with the movie’s pacing. Even though it is labeled as a thriller, Contagion really lacks any sense of excitement. The general feeling of hysteria is always there, but the movie tends to rely too heavily on random subplots that offer little emotional weight. As a result, there are moments where things feel like they are crawling along. This is a bizarre problem for a movie that pushes through over 100 days of action in under two hours.

Even though it is difficult to get behind some of the characters, it must be stated that this is of no fault to the cast. Several of the actors have been nominated for Academy Awards in the past, and they certainly do as good as they can with their small roles. Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne and Jude Law seem to get the most screen time. Damon is great as a normal guy who just so happens to be immune to the disease. After his wife and one of his daughters die at the onset of the virus, he attempts to recreate a normal life with his remaining daughter. Fishburne is in excellent form as Dr. Ellis Cheever, an employee of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Jude Law delivers perhaps the most enjoyable role of all as a conspiracy theory blogger, even taking a cheapshot at blogging in stride.

Contagion [2011]

Other noteworthy additions to the cast include Kate Winslet, Marion Cotillard, Gwyneth Paltrow, Bryan Cranston, Jennifer Ehle and John Hawkes. Winslet in particular shines in her limited role, as she usually does. Cotillard’s character arc is perhaps most frustrating, as she enters and then disappears from the movie at long intervals. Again, kudos to everyone involved for getting all of these big name actors, but it would have been great to have them fleshed out some more.

Regardless of these faults, it would be inappropriate to call Contagion a bad movie. It has an excellent cast and a great concept, and I really enjoyed the tense soundtrack as well. The problem is that it simply could have been a lot better.

6.5/10