By David Poland firstname.lastname@example.org
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.