Sunday, January 6, 2013

OSCAR WATCH: Zero Dark Thirty

Whew, that was intense. After the highly successfully (awards-wise) "The Hurt Locker", Kathryn Bigelow is back in the director's chair with her latest foray into the Middle East - "Zero Dark Thirty". This film follows the tireless search for terrorist leader Osama Bin Laden, in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Much like the hunt itself, the screenplay is a probing investigation into these real-life events.
From the opening scene, Bigelow gets right down to business. We go straight into a torture scene, as CIA agents try to extract some information from an alleged terrorist. In the hands of another film-making team, this would suggest a action-packed thriller to follow, but Bigelow and Boal aren't interested in that. This film is a procedural that serves to showcase the extensive research that Boal did for this script. Bigelow eschews any sort of forced melodrama or amusing side plots to really put you inside this high-stakes manhunt. It's not exactly a drama or a thriller in the usual sense of the word, but it's very engaging. It had me glued to the screen from start to finish, even though the most "exciting" parts came in the beginning and the very end. It's a slow burn that's punctuated by some explosive (literally) moments that really jolt you from your seat. The tension is palpable as you never know when something catastrophic is about to happen.
What makes this film most effective is the outstanding work being done behind the scenes. Apart from Bigelow's focused direction and Boal's smart screenplay, the film is primarily elevated by the editing and sound design. Editor William Goldenberg is having a great year, as he has cut 2 of the most nerve-wracking films I've seen in a while (this film and "Argo"). Each scene is concise and to the point, allowing the plot to fit in as much information as possible. More importantly, the film never lost my interest, which is key to a film that is this long. With dramas I tend to check my watch frequently, but I was completely unaware of the time, as the film just whizzed by. There is a strong sense of urgency that propels the film towards it's riveting conclusion. Due to the intimate cinematography (we hardly get a feel for the environment apart from some overhead shots), the film relies on its impeccable sound design for atmosphere. The subtle underscore keeps you alert, while the loud booms that accompany the explosions really instill the terror.
Yet despite the immaculate construction, I still have some qualms about the film. For all its technical genius, it lacks emotion, leaving the viewer a bit cold at the end. This is mainly due to a lack of character development even with the lead character Maya (played by Jessica Chastain). The film has to deal with a sprawling cast, which prevents the script from really digging deep into any of their individual personas. Chastain is good, but it felt like her character was written like a machine. It isn't the soulful performance that I've come to expect from this brilliant actress. For me, the most memorable actor was Jason Clarke, as he brought the most nuance out of anyone in the cast. He is unflinching in his interrogations, but you're reminded of his humanity when he's not on duty.
It's undeniably a well-made film, that will probably have the most impact with viewers already knowledgeable and interested in all the events that took place. If you're not already invested in the story though, the film could leave you feeling a bit detached. The title change from "Kill Bill Laden" to "Zero Dark Thirty" makes total sense now, as Bigelow doesn't dumb down the material at all. Basically, if you already knew what the term "Zero Dark Thirty" means, then this is tailor-made for your enjoyment. For regular folks like me, I just wish Bigelow had loosened her grip a bit and let the film breathe. Much like "The Hurt Locker", I ended up admiring the film more than I loved it.

In terms of the Oscar race, this film seems to be in a good position at the moment. It's definitely a contender in a number of major categories. As I mentioned in the review, the film's sound design is noteworthy. As such, I think it's primed for nominations in Best Sound Mixing and Best Sound Editing. The film should also pose a strong threat for Best Editing, where Goldenberg will likely compete against himself. In other "tech" categories, it could also slip into the very competitive Best Cinematography category. The photography isn't very remarkable for the most part, but the pivotal raid scene in the end uses some serious nighttime photography. Success in these categories could signal a strong Oscar night for this film, as it is highly favoured in some of the major categories. It could certainly win Best Original Screenplay, Best Actress, Best Director and Best Picture. A lot can happen between now and February 24th though, so we'll just have to wait and see.


  1. I can't wait to see this film. It's not out here until the end of the month though and I'm growing impatient.

    1. It seems like it has been pretty divisive among LAMB members, especially international bloggers. It seems like it appeals more to Americans. I'll be interested to hear what you think when you watch it.

  2. Wow, great review. I see you fell in love with ZDT. Well, have not seen yet. However I think I'll love it more than The Hurt Locker.

  3. What's striking is the absence of triumphalism -- Bigelow doesn't shy away from showing the victims shot down in cold blood in the compound -- and we come away with the overwhelming sense that this has been a grim, dark episode in our history.