Every few years in Hollywood, there is a film that defines a generation. In 2009, “The Hurt Locker” illustrated the intensity and paranoia of scouting for IEDs during the Iraq war. In 2010, “The Social Network” dramatized a new generation of youth that became consumed both positively and negatively by the rapid rise in online social networking. Now in 2012 we have “Zero Dark Thirty,” a film that recounts a ten-year period of time where America was on edge with various nations in the Middle East, and the determined confidence of a young female CIA agent that led to the conclusion of one of the greatest manhunts in world history.
This is a first for me where a movie has about as basic a summary as this one does. However though we may know how this famous manhunt ended, it’s the events leading up to it that the vast majority of us don’t. That is just one aspect of many impeccable pieces of beauty that put together this perfect puzzle of a docudrama. “Zero Dark Thirty” is not only the best movie of 2012, but also the most important one, too.
In her portrayal of Maya, Jessica Chastain delivers her career-best performance. 2011 saw her taking flight in one of the biggest Hollywood breakthrough actresses in some time, and this film only propels her image to further heights. There is something so breathtaking about the body language of her acting where she can communicate her character’s nearly constant stressed-out mood in the most powerful way. For the fact that an actress like Chastain can pull off a performance that’s subdued yet so emotionally effective simultaneously, that is a feat that wins you the Oscar for Best Actress.
Backing up Chastain is a largely talented supporting cast comprised of Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Ehle, Mark Strong, Chris Pratt, and Joel Edgerton. All these actors and more deliver extremely solid work in their performances, especially Jason Clarke and Mark Strong. Clarke adds on an effective presence to the intensity of the film’s interrogation scenes, while Strong displays his most reserved performance in years after playing a wide assortment of villains in the majority of the movies he has starred in during the past five years or so.
As far as technicality goes in this film, it certainly doesn’t get much better than this. The cinematography contrasts between tight, claustrophobic handheld angles in the film’s most intense sequences, in addition to the artful overhead shots of numerous Middle East locations that appear so lush in the scenery of their landscape. Furthermore, the editing is perfectly constructed in terms of matching both the film’s action and primary moods of stress and danger that the characters combat throughout.
With both “The Hurt Locker” and now this film, screenwriter Mark Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow have become one of the most potent filmmaking duos in Hollywood. Every minute of this film clearly shows that these two did their homework to make this film as realistic and accurate as possible, and the combination of Boal’s sharp construction of the film’s events along with Bigelow’s extremely vivid attention-to-detail, it’s a lifelong match made in cinematic heaven. Not only is Bigelow a master craftsman at constructing the mise-en-scene of every scene, but also manages to ratchet up the intensity of a scene in a style that not many directors can compete with. This technique is especially rewarding during the films final thirty minutes where the profoundly intense Seal Team 6 raid takes place.
This brings me now to the Seal Team 6 raid itself. It is severely understated to say that it is only the most intense sequence in any movie from 2012; it is also the best. I seriously can’t remember another instance in a theater that I squeezed the armrest of my chair so tight from feeling so affected by the intensity of a scene. Furthermore, the lack of a musical score during the raid being replaced by eerie background noises and the soundtrack of bullets only adds on to the realism.
Overall, “Zero Dark Thirty” is a master class effort in terms of technicality and overall filmmaking craftsmanship. It’s a movie that exceptionally dramatizes a famous ten-year time period in the history between the United States and Al Queda; it also effectively addresses the emotions we battled, the people we lost, but ultimately concluded in all of us sharing a soothing breath of relief. One of the most important films made in years and also the best of 2012, “Zero Dark Thirty” is a must-see not only for awards season, but also the amazing experience it takes you on.
Final Grade: A