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

Movie Review: Take Shelter [2011]

Take Shelter [2011] Poster

Take Shelter [2011]
Director: Jeff Nichols
Genre: Drama/Thriller
Starring: Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain and Shea Whigham
Runtime: 120 Minutes

Take Shelter is an intelligent film that asks difficult questions about mental illness — specifically, schizophrenia. It is not an easy watch by any means, but it is one that will elicit powerful emotions upon its conclusion.

Michael Shannon, in a groundbreaking performance, is Curtis LaForche, a construction worker living in Ohio with his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and his six-year-old daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart), who is deaf. He works hard to support his family, but their financial problems have them in danger of losing their home. Perhaps triggered by the increasingly stressful situation, Curtis begins have lucid, intense nightmares. He dreams of an impending apocalypse, a storm of epic proportions that will wipe out the world as he knows it.

Take Shelter [2011]

The nightmares don’t stop. Believing these dreams to be more and more as prophetic visions, Curtis begins to build a storm shelter in his backyard. This is when the film kicks itself into high gear. People take notice of Curtis’s erratic behavior. He begins to have problems at work. He is paranoid of those who appear in his dreams. His once-stable family has become strained. Things are going downhill, and fast.

Here’s the kicker: Curtis’s mother was diagnosed with schizophrenia when she was in her thirties. Could he be suffering from the same illness? His behavior certainly suggests this. Or is he a prophet, able to see the future and trying to warn us of the forthcoming doom and gloom?

For much of the film’s runtime, we are forced to answer this for ourselves. This culminates in an unforgettable ending, one that has provoked deep and meaningful discussions from others. It has been a week since I watched the movie, and I still can’t stop thinking about it. What we decipher from this, I feel, ultimately says something about ourselves. Truly, this is an experience that will make all of us look at mental illness in a different light.

Take Shelter [2011]

I don’t know if I have seen a better movie about mental illness, and much of the credit for this goes to to the stellar cast. Michael Shannon is a tour de force here, rightfully deserving to be mentioned among last year’s biggest Oscar snubs. Jessica Chastain is the perfect counterpart to him, a caring and loving wife who does her best to support her husband even when times are rough. I feel she should have been nominated for this rather than her role in The Help.

Quite frankly, Take Shelter is one of 2011’s best films. Period. Grossly overlooked by many, this is an unforgettable movie that would surely be in my top five from the year. Now that it is available on DVD, there is no excuse to miss out on this recent gem.

9/10