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David Poland

By David Poland

First Blush Review: Zero Dark Thirty

It’s an odd thing, realizing as you watch, that you are seeing a movie that is a step above most of what you have seen in the commercial cinema this year. My pulse gets faster, I start being a little hyper-vigilant, even though I don’t take notes in movies – at least the first time through – and I start hoping, beat after beat, scene after scene, not to let the high disappear.

And that’s what I felt from the very first minutes of Zero Dark Thirty tonight.

It stars with a masterful choice in remembering September 11, 2001. Daring, tough, fresh… really quite something.

Cut to: Jason Clarke – spectacular here – starts the fire as a CIA agent who is quite skilled at torturing prisoners. And the introduction of the center of the story, Jessica Chastain.

The three-act structure is quite strong. Act One: Chastian’s Maya dives into the hands-on world of post-9/11 CIA efforts in the Middle East. Act Two: Seasoned, Maya gets some distance, but remains vigilant about pursuing her goal. Act Three: We live through history.

Bigelow & Boal are in a kind of sync that is rare in the history of cinema. Boal has raised the bar on the output of Bigelow’s master-level visual skill by giving her material to work with that is seriously challenging and meaningful. She’d make a great Bond movie, I suspect, but that was her earlier career. This is the stuff of Lean and Bolt. Of course, even that relationship had its misses. But this, the second movie for this duo, was ripe to be mediocre or even horrible. So there was enormous pressure to deliver… and in spite of that, they did.

Comparisons to All The President’s Men are completely valid. But an even stronger beating heart lies beneath this material. B&B personalize the big picture for the audience in a not-so-tricky way… they put us in the room with torture… they remind us of the violence and danger inflicted by terrorists… and they let us experience the “it’s a job” side of life and death. Because the truth of this story… the truth of almost all stories… is the balance between all those truths. ATPM has a lot of that balance too… but in the end, it is still about reporters and The Big Story. The stakes are much higher when lives are on the line in a very human, not movie-like, way. And Chastain is B&B’s way into that humanity.

There are some truly great performances by actresses this year. Marion Cotillard is a miracle in Rust & Bone. Jennifer Lawrence is going to be one of our great stars for years to come and her superstar turn in Silver Linings Playbook shows us why, beyond doubt. But Jessica Chastain turns the double trick… movie star stuff and the in-your-face character work… and her movie is a more overt heroic tale than either of the other films.

The supporting cast – and everyone else is supporting the one character with significance in each of the three acts – is flawless. Clarke and Jennifer Ehle and Edgar Ramirez and Mark Strong kill it in the first act. (Everyone else, including Kyle Chandler, is great too.) The second act brings us Stephen Dillane and James Gandolfini and the return of some 1st acters and more terrific turns. And then, the third act is fronted by The Edgerton Boys.

And Bigelow creates three quite different worlds for each act: the foreign war, the polite suited war that is Washington, and the last, where she takes one of the most well-worn tropes of the film world, “the raid” and finds new notes and Flourishes (some by subtraction), making it one of the best ever.

This is as fine a piece of filmmaking as you will see. And while many will prefer other types of films – and that doesn’t make them wrong, just with different taste – this film hits to all fields in a way that others just don’t even try for. There are a few “forever” films this year, starting – for me – with Amour. But when you run into a movie that has some real epic size, historic subject matter, thrills, a few great laughs, and boasts the skill set on display here… this is a different kind of collectable. Plus, you get three films for the price of one.

Can’t wait to see it again.

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33 Responses to “First Blush Review: Zero Dark Thirty”

  1. Eldrick says:

    i’m sold. can’t wait to see it.

  2. Rashad says:

    The last thing the movie needs is a reminder of 9/11. We get it.

  3. Mike says:

    Looking forward to this one.

  4. bulldog68 says:

    This is the reason why I miss your reviews and wish you would do more of them. I remember you had an issue with the movie title when it was announced. I hope the movie gave the title perspective for you. I can’t wait to see it and agree or disagree with you.

  5. spassky says:

    “The last thing the movie needs is a reminder of 9/11. We get it.”

    Yeah, but think 20 years from now when people may need a little more perspective. (as disappointing and perhaps surprising that may in fact sound)

  6. Daniella Isaacs says:

    But what we really want to know is… What do you think it’s Oscar chances are?

  7. David Poland says:

    Tell me what you think after seeing the film, Rashad. The filmmakers are clearly aware of that fatigue… and I think the solution is brilliant and will not tax you.

  8. LYT says:

    “Yeah, but think 20 years from now when people may need a little more perspective.”

    On that note it’s interesting that – as far as I remember – the movie never comes out and says “Osama bin Laden was responsible for 9-11” or an equivalent quote that actually spells it out. Plus they call him “UBL” rather than “OBL” which might also confuse future scholars-as-such.

    No current viewer will likely need that explained, but indeed, I wonder about those who see it in the future.

  9. LYT says:

    It also helps to know, for example, who “KSM” is.

  10. waterbucket says:

    I can’t believe this year has so many must-see movies: Zero Dark Thirty, Argo, Lincoln, Life of Pi, Silver Linings, Les Miz, the Hobbit, … And they’re all so different from each other. Cinematic heaven!

  11. Lex says:

    Don’t forget “The Collection.”

  12. cadavra says:

    It’s indeed important to think of the future. I recently went to a screening of an incredibly obscure 1933 movie called THE MAN WHO DARED. It’s a thinly-disguised recount of the then-recent assassination of Chicago mayor Anton Cermak (the gunman was aiming for FDR and missed). The film provided absolutely no details about the characters and story, because it was still in the news, audiences were familiar with the events, and nobody thought it might be still be viewed decades later. Needless to say, most of the people at the screening found the whole thing slightly puzzling. So, yeah, a little backstory couldn’t hoit.

  13. Breedlove says:

    Weird,to think back to the 90s when I first started hearing about him they did spell it Usama with a U.

  14. Joe Leydon says:

    I show All the President’s Men to students 3-4 times a year (depending on whether I teach summer and/or mini-semester sessions as well as fall and spring classes), usually the week after I screen Shampoo. And I always preface the screenings with a longer-than-usual lecture to explain all the political and pop culture allusions to students. Because I have learned the hard way that if I don’t do this, most students won’t catch or understand the references to Spiro Agnew (who appears as something as an ironic sight gag in “Shampoo”), George McGovern, Thomas Eagleton, George Wallace, Ed Muskie, Chappaquiddick, The Canuck Letter, and on and on. With each passing year, I find the lecture has to be a bit longer and more detailed. Recently, I have found some students don’t know who Ted Kennedy was, and have only the vaguest idea what Watergate was all about. Sooner or later, I’m sure, I’ll have to explain who Richard Nixon was.

    And before you tell me, “Well, all of that is ancient history,” consider this: When I say that Chris Carter has acknowledged the influence of All the President’s Men on The X-Files — I am greeted with far more blank stares than nods of recognition.

    Please don’t misunderstand: I’m not saying these students are dumb. I’m saying that it won’t take as long as 20 years for you to find sentient adults who have no idea who or what Osama Bin Laden ever was.

  15. sanj says:

    Joe – it might take 50 years before people start forgetting baout Bin Laden – just show the twin towers and his face and people will get it ….with watergate you need charts and graphs .

    before the lifetime movie – Liz and Dick – i had no idea who Richard Burton, and Liz Taylor were … now i know.

    lots of people will find Lincoln 2012 boring but Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter might be better for them …

    film makers are creating mashups of history all the time …

    look at all the historical figures in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure…thanks Keanu!

  16. cadavra says:

    FWIW, Fox News always called him “Usama” or UBL. The fact that the variant spelling begins with USA amuses me no end.

    Right on, Joe. When I presented ONE TWO THREE at the TCM Festival last year, I gave a longer than usual introduction, giving not only the mucked-up production history but also placing it in a historical context and dropping some points of interest that would help the audience better understand some of the jokes (e.g., the reference to “Little Rock” was not ESP about Clinton but rather about school busing).

  17. Lex says:

    I spent the entirety of Lincoln having no idea who the hell Jefferson Davis was.

  18. YancySkancy says:

    I can’t remember what all your degrees are in, Lex, but I’m guessing History isn’t one of them? 🙂

  19. etguild2 says:

    Sold. Is 2012 emerging as the best year for film since 2006? Or even 1999?

    Lincoln, Argo, Zero, Silver, Le Miz, Pi, Amour, Beasts, The Master, with Django still to be seen and amazing stuff like Moonrise Kingdom, Rust and Bone, Killing Them Softly, Skyfall, Middle of Nowhere, and The Impossible likely left out in the cold.

  20. jesse says:

    I’m always surprised by these “best movie year since…” discussions because more often than not they land on years I remember as being particularly WEAK, like 2003 or 2006 — years where I probably had the most recent trouble putting together a solid ten-best list. I’d say 2007 was the best recent movie year, with in no particular order: Zodiac, Grindhouse, Superbad, Once, Knocked Up, Ratatouille, Margot at the Wedding, There Will Be Blood, Sunshine, delightful flop comedies Hot Rod and Walk Hard, Darjeeling Limited, Gone Baby Gone, Michael Clayton, No Country for Old Men, Juno, I’m Not There, and Sweeney Todd.

    But 2012 is shaping up to challenge it handily, even without hoped-for contributions from Cuaron, Coens, Luhrmann, Malick, or Baumbach (whose Frances Ha would be way on my ten best list had it actually come out this year).

    I’d say so far this decade has been working out pretty well — I didn’t find 2010, 2011, or now 2012 particularly weak.

  21. etguild2 says:

    I go with 2004 and 2006 so far as the best years since 1999, with 2007 close.

    I may be in the minority but I think 2006 was the greatest year for genre in the decade with Children of Men, Pan’s Labyrinth, Casino Royale, The Prestige and The Illusionist competing with films like United 93, Little Miss Sunshine, The Queen, Half Nelson, Little Children, Last King of Scotland, The Departed, Volver, The Lives of Others, The Painted Veil, Blood Diamond and Babel.

    It’s all subjective, but yeah, I think no one can dispute 2012 is very very strong. Last year really didn’t cut it for me…

  22. jesse says:

    My very top 2006 movies are some of my favorite recent ones: Brick, Children of Men, The Prestige, The Departed… as good a first four as any recent year. And I love Casino Royale. But a lot of the others you mention leave me cold, or half-impressed but never interested in watching them again. 2001 has a similar “problem” (if you can call these things problems): Royal Tenenbaums, Moulin Rouge, Ghost World, Memento… four movies I LOVE. But then I had trouble filling out the list of ten that year.

    With you on 2004, though. Previous decade, I’d give it up for 2002, 2004, 2007, 2009.

    Last year was solid for me: Super 8, The Muppets, Source Code, Tree of Life, Cold Weather, The Future, X-Men: First Class, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Young Adult, Drive, Melancholia, Bridesmaids, Rango, and plenty more I liked almost as much.

  23. David Poland says:

    Lex was looking for Jefferson, George

  24. etguild2 says:

    I think I have the same problem with last year as you have with 2006…aside from Tree of Life, Hugo, Drive and Another Earth, nothing really reached me. But then again, I have a great love of The Fountain in 2006, which leaves most people totally detached…

    Completely agree on 2001.

  25. Jack Cerf says:

    I’ve seen Jason Clarke’s “I’m here to break you” speech in the trailer. I’ve also seen that speech in many other movies, but the guy giving it always had twin lightning bolts on his collar or a red star on his hat. I have faith that Bigelow and Boal have told a terrific story, and I can’t wait for the political debate that it will provoke once the pundits get to watch it.

  26. sanj says:

    nobody is talking about playing for keeps 2012 –

    look at all this talent that seems wasted on a family film …

    Gerard Butler, Jessica Biel, Uma Thurman, Dennis Quaid, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Judy Greer….

    Gabriele Muccino – director has done- The Pursuit of Happyness –

    chances are most people on here aren’t going to see it and no dp/30’s …

    the end of the year brings action and drama … everything else seems to not get noticed – family / indie films … those have to work way harder to get peoples
    attention… that’s why we need film critics .

    also Jessica Chastain is on the cover of the new UK GQ

  27. jesse says:

    I also really like The Fountain! (I wondered if Cloud Atlas might be in trouble box-office wise when I realized one of the demos among my friends where it seemed to do well in terms of wanting to see it was “people who really liked The Fountain”). That is a good ’06er, although I admit it might not have made my ten-best list in another year.

  28. YancySkancy says:

    I dunno, 2001 also had these titles, which ain’t chopped liver, IMO:

    A.I.: Artificial Intelligence
    Mulholland Drive
    Spirited Away
    Last Orders
    Gosford Park
    The Others
    The Man Who Wasn’t There

  29. cadavra says:

    CLOUD ATLAS is another example of Warners’ inability to sell anything whose star doesn’t wear a cape or wave a wand. Instead of marketing it as an epic adventure with an all-star cast (including at least four Oscar winners), they sold it as a vegetable movie: “You’ll need to see it several times, ’cause you won’t understand it.” Not saying it woulda been a blockbuster, but it shoulda done 50, 60 just on the cast and directors. Instead it’s done about $8 million less than THINK LIKE A MAN’s opening weekend.

  30. Double D says:

    2007 is the best movie year of the decade, no questions. 2002 and 2003 close behind. 2010 maybe with social network, Inception and True Grit.

    2007 – No Country, Blood, Diving Bell, Michael Clayton, Jesse James, Rataouille, Bourne Ulti, Into the Wild, The Host, No End in Sight. Plus some solid three stars: American Gangster, 310 to Yuma, Atonement, sweeny todd, charlie wilson’s war, Zodiac (though many think that’s a classic).

    2005 likely being the worst. Brokeback is still a good movie, but not nearly as a big deal as people made it at the time. Capote’s fine, good night and good luck is an afternoon school special. Crash sucks. Munich’s a great 90 minute movie stretched 2.5 hours.

    2009 might be worst runner-up. The only ageless movie that year is UP. Hurt Locker and Avatar I think are good, but don’t hold a candle to UP. District 9 also really solid.

  31. jesse says:

    Yancy, A.I. should’ve been on my 2001 favorites list — that would be number 5, after those other four, and I do love that movie (it’s less absolutely perfect than the others I mentioned, but a great one nonetheless). I also really like Wet Hot American Summer and Monsters Inc. and the Man Who Wasn’t There. But I don’t have a great bounty of 2001 movies I love. I’m not big on Mulholland Drive or Gosford Park or Spirited Away.

    And anyway, a great movie year for me is more of a bulk/volume game. There are lots of years where I can find five or six movies I really liked. I mean, really, if a movie year isn’t yielding that much, it’s pretty lousy. But the years when I can name 20 or 30, that’s something a bit more special (and how could I forget Jesse James in 2007? LOVE that one, too).

    Double D, I’m with you on UP as the kind of 2009, and Hurt Locker and Avatar being more good than great, but 2009 also offered: Inglourious Basterds, The Brothers Bloom, A Serious Man, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Adventureland, Where the Wild Things Are, Observe and Report, Star Trek, Funny People, The Girlfriend Experience AND The Informant, Away We Go, Moon… a volume game!

    2003 is the one that sticks out for me as pretty middling. Favorites that year: Kill Bill Volume 1, Once Upon a Time in Mexico (really), Big Fish, American Splendor, Lost in Translation… some others in ’03 that I like, but dries up pretty quickly after that top five (and that top five isn’t as strong as some other years).

  32. jesse says:

    Cadavra, to be fair, they did put out an epic long-ish trailer for Cloud Atlas that sold it as a big-scope movie with a lot of stars. It might’ve even made it look like more of a sci-fi movie than it really was. And that movie is tough to sell.

    But I do agree that someone should’ve been able to market it to $50 million or so.

  33. Milano says:

    More importantly, how rough is the shaky camerawork in “Zero Dark Thirty”?

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And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

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