Upon initial release, director Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty looked like a clear front runner for Best Picture. After winning big with the New York Film Critics Awards, the film has dispersed a little. After a not-so-stellar performance at the Golden Globes, it has fallen behind titles such as director Ben Affleck's Argo, a film which many cannot help but compare vaguely. Maybe it was the violent subject matter of torture and endless disputes brought forth by former CIA agents criticizing the realism. Then again, what stopped director Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained from losing steam for being a more hyper-violent (and frankly, a little shoddy) story? However, say what you will, but what Bigelow has produced is a masterpiece in the War on Terror genre of film making.
Upon seeing Zero Dark Thirty, I couldn't help but feel certain rage. I am sure that many aspects of the film are fictionalized in ways similar to that of director David Fincher's The Social Network. However, with limited files available to writer Mark Boal and Bigelow, it was only expected that they would flub on small details. Even if there are some egregious errors, the narrative serves the purpose of how a woman's obsession with killing Osama bin Laden was told at a kinetic, fast moving pace that makes it one of the most engaging modern procedural. With a tense, pulse throbbing score by Alexandre Desplat, almost every moment of tension, fear, and triumph are all earned without a sense of insincerity.
Jessica Chastain stars as Maya, who spends most of the 2000's dealing with the aftermath of 9-11. There isn't so much a back story as there is a sense of dedication and inner struggle. Even when she is talking to friends, she is on her phone dealing with the next big plan. The story is just as much about how one man can disconnect America as it is about the end goal. It may seem like an obscure game of cat and mouse, but rarely have the stakes felt this high and with consistent peril, it doesn't matter if some details were flubbed. This is a gripping story and Boal only piles on more evidence to take down bin Laden without ever once showing his face.
The biggest achievement with the film is Bigelow's directorial style. After proving her skill for tension and peril with Best Picture winner The Hurt Locker, she almost steps up the game in every possible way. The movie is longer, covers more land mass and time. Also, it feels more intimate in that even though Maya is never seen as more than the "motherf**ker who found the place," she is human and dedicated to her job. She almost embodies inner tension with so much skill that it is a shame that Jennifer Lawrence (Silver Linings Playbook) is somehow expected to win Best Actress this year. Bigelow's snub is also kind of a travesty in that she is constantly moving the story forward with ingenious visuals involving computer screens, scenic shots, and silent moments. She is a master of her craft and makes the war feel almost meditative and peaceful, despite being so much more.
The biggest snub of all comes in the lack of recognition for Jason Clarke, who plays Dan. His job is the unapologetic interrogation that has plagued the movie with controversy. However, the range of the character is subtle, but great. His slow digression from being a ruthless, yelling man to the slow desire for calm is just incredible. While Chastain gets way more credit for carrying the movie on her shoulders, Clarke's brief screen time far outshines the passion and energy of most other supporting actors in this movie. The performances by Kyle Chandler, Chris Pratt, Joel Edgerton, and James Gandolfini are fine, but pale in comparison to Chastain, whose passionate cries for financial support for operations is only made more interesting in her relationship with Clarke. His loud, physical performance is one that draws you in and almost makes the torture scenes feel more authentic.
In a sense, Bigelow's achievement is also in being unapologetic. She doesn't necessarily paint the Americans as innocent heroes. By opening with an interrogation scene, she makes the point clear the she plans to tell her story with all bias aside. This is effective film making that turns the War on Terror into a dark analysis of the lengths people would go to to serve justice. Sometimes it is dirty and shocking, but it is done. In fact, adding Maya as the lead is an ingenious touch, as it allows the story to have a more feminine touch and overall prove that this war impacted everyone's life. Also, that women could be strong, independent leaders. In fact, Bigelow's unrepentant style makes this an exciting film that I hope will eventually become part of the lexicon as the great War on Terror epic that it is. At very least, it shows an artist who has a vision and is unafraid to state it her way.
Zero Dark Thirty doesn't try to be a universal movie, but one with an honest core. People will die and end up lonely by the end of the story. This doesn't attempt to paint America as a grand hero, innocent of all faux pas. It paints a rough time in American history that is probably too dear and near to most who see it. However, her dedication to keeping the pace brisk and the story constantly moving is what turns it from just another war film to a great one. It may be overlooked for being too edgy at the Oscars, but it already has solidified its place in history as a culturally relevant film. It will serve as a prime example of how the War on Terror was represented via cinema in one of its most purest forms.
As I previously established, I believe that this film is well deserving of the Best Picture nomination. In fact, if the Academy wanted to go with the most relevant narrative of the nominees, this would be it. However, as proven in year's past, the Academy isn't always in love with edgy film makers whose stories are a little raw and violent. True, the film succeeds in only using violence as a plot device as opposed to glorifying it, but compared to more innocent nominees like Life of Pi, it is just too much for mainstream audiences. Also, Bigelow has already won for The Hurt Locker and while it would be an achievement to win back-to-back, this is a competitive year.
Besides the fact that Bigelow didn't get nominated for Best Director, there is another speculation raging against it. One that kind of feels stupid, but one that I have skeptically held against it since the first trailer. The film is based on a true story of America saving the day in the Middle East with a score by Alexandre Desplat. In any other year, that could describe only one film. However, this year, it describes also Argo. It isn't that Zero Dark Thirty pales in comparison, but as previously stated, Argo is more of a crowd pleaser. It also features a more pro-movies argument in its narrative, which is one that Academy tends to go for, as proven with The Artist's Best Picture win last year. Add on that the Director's Guild of America (DGA) just gave Ben Affleck the Best Director trophy, Argo is on track of taking Best Picture on Oscar Night. While Bigelow started off strong, post-Golden Globes haven't played in her favor. Just look at the nominations.
Still, if one thing is far and away impressive, it is Jessica Chastain. After seeing her performance and her ability to stand her ground, it is hard to consider that the Best Actress trophy should go to anyone else, let alone Jennifer Lawrence for Silver Linings Playbook. She is a magnetic, strong female character and one that is rarely seen by the Academy. In fact, the other batch of Best Actress nominees all make Lawrence look weak in comparison. However, according to statistics website Gold Derby, Chastain trails in second with odds of 7:2 where Lawrence has a commanding 17:10. It is at least comforting to know that she is the runner up, though my dream is for her to win. On a side note, I still feel like Jason Clarke should have had more traction leading up to this. He should have taken Robert De Niro (Silver Linings Playbook) slot on the nomination bracket.
I am also sold that Zero Dark Thirty should win Best Original Screenplay. With odds of 9:4, it leads the pack with Django Unchained a near second with 10:3. What makes the screenplay exceptionally interesting is how it slips in pop culture and morbid humor without ever feeling forced. Mark Boal is a master at his craft and this may be one of his best scripts. It also deserves the technical awards that it is nominated for, including Best Sound Editing and Best Film Editing. Bigelow has also proven that she is a master of the sound scape and is sadly undervalued in the other categories.
I personally doubt at this point that Zero Dark Thirty will pull an upset. It comes in the Best Picture race in fifth with odds of 12:1. Not all that impressive, though is comforting to assume that it could easily have made the top five back in the old nomination format. The film is one that I am sure is way too divisive to win the big prizes, but I am still annoyed that in a year when Jessica Chastain creates a strong female character, it is undermined in every way by Silver Linings Playbook, notably in the Best Director and Best Actress fields. While I am contempt with Argo pulling a win on Oscar Night, I will like it not to be because it was the similar yet better film, but because it was a great film to watch period.
Do you think that Zero Dark Thirty can pull a few upsets? Will Jason Clarke ever get another chance at an Oscar nomination? Did the right Alexandre Desplat score get nominated? Is the film's undoing due to its controversy?