With The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey screening this week and Les Miserables debuting to positive impressions over the weekend, another major December film was unearthed yesterday with the first screenings of Mark Boal and Kathryn Bigelow‘s The Hurt Locker follow-up Zero Dark Thirty. Led by Jessica Chastain (who is getting a heap of praise) the film chronicles the hunt for Osama bin Laden and we’ve rounded up excerpts from the first reviews, after an intense new TV spot featuring new footage. Check them out below and look for our take on the film in the coming weeks.
Whether you call it well-informed speculative history, docudrama re-creation or very stripped-down suspense filmmaking, Zero Dark Thirty matches form and content to pretty terrific ends. A long-arc account of the search for Osama bin Laden seen from the perspective of an almost insanely focused female CIA officer who never gives up the hunt until the prey ends up in a body bag, Kathryn Bigelow’s and Mark Boal’s heavily researched successor to Oscar winner The Hurt Locker will be tough for some viewers to take, not only for its early scenes of torture, including waterboarding, but due to its denial of conventional emotionalism and non-gung ho approach to cathartic revenge-taking. Films touching on 9/11, such as United 93, World Trade Center and Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, have proved commercially toxic, and while this one has a “happy” ending, its rigorous, unsparing approach will inspire genuine enthusiasm among the serious, hardcore film crowd more than with the wider public.
The decade-long manhunt for Osama Bin Laden races by in a 159-minute adrenaline-fueled chase in Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, which unfolds with certainty and smart decisions on both sides of the camera. It’s a rarity, a truly entertaining film that never condescends to its audience or cheapens history and truth. Zero Dark Thirty lacks the existentialist peril and high drama of Bigleow’s previous, Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker, but replaces those showy-but-strong elements with both tension and truth in the pursuit of drama, fiction lightly draped over fact. Despite a star-free (and talent-rich) ensemble, its box office can count on curiosity, awards-season buzz and the word-of-mouth in support of its excellent and unsentimental approach.
There’s not an extra beat in the film, not a wasted scene. This may not be like any other thriller I can name, but that’s one way you can tell that Bigelow and Boal have done something special here. This is a hollowpoint bullet of a film, and it’s going to rattle around inside me for days as I reflect on it, and I look forward to seeing it again very soon.
Formally, the film is mostly paced out well. It starts to bog down in the middle but that’s by nature of what’s going on here. A lot of this stuff is inherently dull and repetitive. But that’s also kind of the point. When it starts mounting, however, the film builds masterfully, and to a final sequence that will rightly have you gripping the armrests of your chair.
First and last, Zero Dark Thirty is a movie, and a damned fine one. Like Argo — which, with all due respect to director Ben Affleck and the film’s many admirers, ZDT blows out of the water — it dramatizes a true-life international adventure with CIA agents as the heroes. (And it takes fewer fictional liberties with the source material than Affleck did.) In the tradition of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, Boal tracked down the particulars of a sensational exploit and, skipping the “non-fiction novel” stage, created an original screenplay that provides a streamlined timeline of the hunt for bin Laden. The word “docudrama” doesn’t hint at Boal’s achievement. This is movie journalism that snaps and stings, that purifies a decade’s clamor and clutter into narrative clarity, with a salutary kick.
Spanning two presidential administrations and approximately eight years, “Zero Dark Thirty” is as dispassionate, clinical and grindingly thorough as an obsessed tactical procedural can get. But at two and a half hours, the hunt for Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden is also as gripping and riveting as any film in this fact-finding methodology-based genre.
Wildly more ambitious than “The Hurt Locker,” yet nowhere near so tripwire-tense, this procedure-driven, decade-spanning docudrama nevertheless rivets for most of its running time by focusing on how one female CIA agent with a far-out hunch was instrumental in bringing down America’s most wanted fugitive.
Zero Dark Thirty opens on December 19th in limited release, before going wide in January.
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