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Zero Dark Thirty - Film Review

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by David Harris (subscribe)
Freelance writer and father of two, living in Perth, Western Australia
Published February 12th 2013
Zeitgeist: The defining spirit or mood of a particular period of history as shown by the ideas and beliefs of the time.

It's an important word to know, particularly when examining Director Kathryn Bigelow's hotly anticipated follow-up to 2008's The Hurt Locker. As in, does the film accurately depict the pervading spirit and mood of the U.S. (perhaps even the world) in the period of time between 9/11 and the death of bin Laden ten years later?

Zero Dark Thirty

The film itself is a procedural-like chronicle of the manhunt for the world's most wanted terrorist, which in the hands of a lesser creative team could well have fallen flat. As it stands however, Bigelow has produced the slickest procedural since David Fincher's Zodiac. The difference here is, that Zodiac was ultimately an unrewarding experience from a story perspective given the unresolved nature of the subject matter, while Zero Dark Thirty culminates in one of the most cathartic pieces of cinema you'll find.

And while Bigelow's touch is impressive, credit also needs to go to screenwriter Mark Boal and cinematographer Greig Fraser.

Boal previously collaborated with Bigelow on The Hurt Locker, and it's clear that his time as an embedded reporter in Iraq has crafted his perception of the war on terror. He writes with an assurance on matters of bureaucracy, statecraft, and procedure, all while creating what feels like a very genuine atmosphere. Boal finely crafts his script around the real life narrative beats provided by a decade's worth of terrorist activity. The end result is a chilling rendition of a history we remember.

Fraser's work is equally impressive. His technical proficiency is such that it is noticeable even by a layman. The climactic scene of the film is told in real-time, on the ground from almost a first person perspective, in the dead of night. From beginning to end the challenges of shooting such a scene are handled to perfection, with a perfect balance of light and dark, never once upsetting the atmosphere which is so crucial to the sequence. Throughout the film, Fraser has created a slick look which should earmark him as someone to look out for in Hollywood.

The climactic scene of the film is edge-of-your-seat good.

Performance-wise, the supporting cast hits all the right notes. Kyle Chandler, James Gandolfini, Jennifer Ehle, Joel Edgerton are all noteworthy contributors, bringing the right amount of gravity and screen presence to their respective roles. But the stars of the film are undoubtedly Jessica Chastain and Jason Clarke. Suffice to say that if either of these two actors had turned in even average performances, the film would have suffered. As it is, their performances are peerless.

Jessica Chastain and Jason Clarke
Chastain and Clarke turn in classy performances.

Back to the word of the day. Zeitgeist. What Bigelow and Boal have created with Zero Dark Thirty is a film which accurately documents the spirit of the Western world, particularly the U.S.A. during the ten year search for bin Laden. The necessity for closure. The willingness to compromise certain moral standards. It's a film which speaks to a nation's desire for revenge. And that perhaps, is the beauty of Chastain's character, CIA officer Maya, who is the perfect avatar for this prevailing sentiment.

Zero Dark Thirty stands in an interesting place in cinema. Neither flag-waving nor compromising on certain brutal truths, it manages to hit all the right notes without preaching.

I give it 4.5 stars out of 5.
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When: Now showing
Where: In cinemas
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