Director Kathryn Bigelow and scribe Mark Boal follow up their award-winning microcosm of war, The Hurt Locker, with the busting at the seams macrocosm of war, Zero Dark Thirty. According to the filmmakers, the flick's title is "military jargon for the dark of night, as well as the moment—12:30am— when the Navy Seals first stepped foot on the compound" where Osama bin Laden was in hiding. As events unfold, we witness how rookie agent Maya (Jessica Chastain) and an elite team of CIA and military operatives worked under the radar for nearly a decade to hunt bin Laden down.
By now, you've read about the controversy involving scenes of torture by the Americans and whether or not they are legit. And for that matter, if filmmakers had obtained intel in less than acceptable ways.
The bigger question is whether all this endlessly long data, and recorded first-hand accounts amount to a satisfying movie experience. The critics already love it, and the Academy probably will too. But will you? Even though gamers can't get enough of Call of Duty, moviegoers have stayed away from films depicting warfare post-9/11. If Zero is going buck that trend, it will be a result of the very fresh and rather mature tone.
Here are our thoughts on this year's most hot button flick, which opens in limited release today:
1. Moral Ambiguity on Terrible Acts of Violence: A bulk of the first act is spent at a "black site" where rookie Maya shadows Dan (Jason Clarke) in the ways of deep interrogation. A brutal, unflinching look at just how information is gathered, these scenes offer up no easy answers. In fact, by the time Maya starts to close in what she believes is solid intel to bin Laden's whereabouts, we're still not sure if early moments torture are the reason. That's the point: There are no A-leads-to-B moments in the greatest manhunt in human history.
2. Maya's Mean Face or Carrie's Sad Face? We Heart Both: Both actresses are terrific in their roles. Homeland's Carrie (Claire Danes) bipolar CIA agent we love to root for. Chastain's Maya is way less emotional—downright stone cold!—allowing audiences to take in the events and judge for themselves, a clever way to show how important the role of assessing information is in the Central Intelligence Agency. There are times when Maya is beyond frustrated though, dealing with the agency's inaction on her leads. When in doubt use a red marker!
3. The Raid Feels Real, Never Awesome: The last 30 minutes are focused on the Navy Seals assault on bin Laden's compound in Pakistan. Tense, for sure, but in a matter-of-fact manner. People are killed, children are terrified, soldiers move on. Chilling, and (probably) how such a tactical strike really went down.
4. We Felt Smarter for Seeing It: The first hour was a bit overwhelming. Too many names to remember, too many locations. To Bigelow's credit by the end, not only did everything come together in the final showdown, we had that satisfying "aha moment." Like All the Presidents Men, seeing Zero made us feel like we could talk about issues like the War on Terror. We probably really can't, though.
5. The Cast Is Terrific, but the Familiar Faces Can Be Distracting: Look the guy from Parks and Rec, (Chris Pratt) in Call of Duty gear! The dude from The League (Mark Duplass) speaking like an intelligence op. Coach Taylor (Kyle Chandler) is Maya's boss! Why is Arrow's John Barrowman in the briefing room at all? Unknowns might have been more effective.
Do you think Zero Dark Thirty is too real to be entertaining? Sound off in the comments!