Thursday, February 21, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

5 Nominations, Wins To Be Determined

Nomination: Best Picture - Mark Boal, Kathryn Bigelow, and Megan Ellison
Nomination: Best Actress in a Leading Role - Jessica Chastain
Nomination: Best Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen - Mark Boal
Nomination: Best Editing - William Goldenberg and Dylan Tichenor
Nomination: Best Sound Editing - Paul N.J. Ottosson

When a Quentin Tarantino film isn't the most controversial of the nominees for Best Picture, you know it's an interesting year for the Academy.

Jessica Chastain Kathryn Bigelow
Zero Dark Thirty has garnered a fair degree of controversy due to its depictions of torture and the assertion that said torture led to the finding and killing of Osama Bin Laden.  While Lincoln earned enough love from members of the United States Senate to earn a private screening for Senators, Zero Dark Thirty received criticism from Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, with McCain requesting the addition of a disclaimer to the film.

It has become impossible to talk about Zero Dark Thirty without recognizing this debate, and while I generally believe a film should be judged entirely based on its artistic merit without consideration of politics, these issues are simply unavoidable for some films.  Whether the decision to include these depictions of torture was the correct one is beyond the scope of this post, so beyond recognizing the very real and fair debate surrounding this film, the rest of this post will focus solely on the artistic merit of the film.

Screenwriter Mark Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow faced the unenviable task of crafting a thriller in which the outcome was not only known to the audience, but one in which the details were fresh in the minds of most and not viewed through the hazy lens of history.  Films based on true stories always face this challenge - it's hard to imagine anyone was surprised by the appearance of an iceberg in Tianic - but this problem is particularly acute in thrillers, in which the suspense of what will happen is a crucial element.  By choosing to tell the story entirely focused on one character who the public until recently did not know much about, Boal and Bigelow successfully met this challenge.

When the suspense lags, it is due less to the preordained ending than to the bloated runtime.  The film spans nearly a decade and Boal was challenged with compressing a ten-year long manhunt into a feature film, so it's not surprising and it makes sense that the film is long.  Yet there were several scenes that could have been shortened or perhaps even excised entirely, and doing so would have heightened the suspense without losing much in the way of character or plot development.

The film's climax, the raid on bin Laden's compound, is masterfully directed, and it is stunning that Bigelow was not nominated for this sequence alone.  The filming and editing of the raid is suspenseful and tasteful, violent yet responsible.  In a year with several truly memorable sequences (the vote for final passage in Lincoln, the airplane crash sequence in Flight), this sequence will likely stand the test of time as one of the more memorable of its time.

Jessica Chastain has been the next big thing for a few years now, and though she's turned in some solid performances, at times it has felt as if the hype was greater than the talent.  Her performance in Zero Dark Thirty shows why she has earned so much hype.  Though the performance isn't as flashy as some of her fellow nominees in the Best Actress category, she is greatly effective in her role, and the maturity she demonstrated in refraining from showier antics should be lauded.  My favorite in the category is still Emmanuelle Riva in Amour, but for the first time I understand why so many people speak so highly of Chastain's promise.

Bigelow, Boal, and the rest of the team behind Zero Dark Thirty have been deservedly commended for producing such a taut and thoughtful thriller, and even though the film could have benefited from some additional cutting, it was still tremendously effective and well made.  The troubling extracinematic matters will hamper the ability of many viewers to unreservedly appreciate this film, but this debate is all the more reason to see this film, the rare thoughtful and intelligent thriller.

Remaining: 3165 films, 871 Oscars, 5435 nominations

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