This week, the New York Film Critics Circle named "Zero Dark Thirty" the best film of 2012, and Kathryn Bigelow, best director. Depicting the true story of the decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden, the movie replicates the same shaky, docu-drama style of Bigelow’s "Hurt Locker" (for which she won a Best Director Oscar in 2011). Filled by a small army of truly stellar character actors, the film’s sprawling narrative takes place on more than two continents and encompasses countless dedicated man hours.
Anchoring the entire madcap dash to capture and kill the engineer of the 9/11 terrorist attacks is Maya, a dogged CIA agent played with ferocity and heart by Jessica Chastain. It's her determination and sheer force of will that eventually leads to the raid on the compound that fateful evening in 2011.
The question is, given the number of movies that have crashed and burned at the box office featuring post-9/11-centered narratives ("Green Zone" anyone? How about "Stop Loss?"), will people rally around this nearly three-hour epic? Or will they forget it for more jovial holiday fare? Read on to find out…
PRO: Yes, It Really Is One Of The Best Movies Of The Year
Any way you slice it, "Zero Dark Thirty" is a towering achievement of modern filmmaking -- a hyper-real and almost hallucinogenic dramatization of the search for truth and intelligence in an age plagued by faulty information. (More than one reference is made to the shoddy statistics that got us into Iraq following 9/11.) It's also one hell of a revenge movie, with the first scene comprised of a black screen where real phone calls from 9/11 are played. It gets your blood going in a big way, to the point that you're super-glued to the edge of your seat for the entire runtime. There are 90-minute movies that make me want to reach for my car keys about halfway through. However, "Zero Dark Thirty" flies by. It’s heady and hearty, interested in investigating all sorts of morally thorny issues that came up after September 11.
CON: You Might Die While Watching It
When "The Hurt Locker" came out I joked that there should have been a title card at the end of the movie that said: "You may now take a deep breath." For "Zero Dark Thirty," there should be something that flashes before the film, like the warning for when you're about to get on Space Mountain: Pregnant women and people with a pre-existing heart condition should probably steer cheer. Yes, it's that kind of exciting. The final raid on the house, which is partially filmed in night-vision technology (it gives everything a ghostly green tint and really makes you feel like you're part of the team), is so suspenseful that I am pretty sure most of my vital organs shut down completely. Even if you think you know the story, well, you don’t, and Bigelow, her Oscar-winning writer Mark Boal and the rest of the "Zero Dark Thirty" team wring this thing for as many non-stop thrills as possible. What's more, internal conflicts, like a great blow-out between Maya and her supervisor, played by Kyle Chandler, will raise the hairs on the back of your neck. Another hot tip: don’t drink anything before or during the movie; you don't want to leave your seat and miss a second, and whoever you're with is not going to want to fill you in either.
PRO: Jessica Chastain Gives The Performance Of The Year
At one point, a senior member of the CIA asks Maya to give him a little of her backstory. She refuses. That's the kind of character she is. There isn't a real emotional "in" with Maya, but yet, as the movie closes, you feel choked up, because you've gone on this amazing journey with her. Maya is fiercely intelligent, doggedly single-minded and possessing the kind of natural problem-solving skills that most of us only dream about. She is also totally assured. And yet the audience never knows anything about her. As embodied by Chastain, who brought an ethereal otherworldliness to her role last year in "The Tree of Life," her character is very much stuck in the muck and mire of the situation.
CON: It Can Be Pretty Confusing
"Zero Dark Thirty," which is military lingo for the time that the final assault on the Bin Laden estate commenced (thirty minutes after midnight), isn't watched as much as it's downloaded directly into your cerebral cortex. If you're along for the ride, then it's a pleasure. If not, it can be very overwhelming. Despite the helpful title cards, which depict new times and locations, you can't always make out what everyone is saying, and there is a constant change of scenery and characters. Some people won’t want something this heavy as their Friday night entertainment. Those moviegoers will be hopelessly lost or (worse yet) emotionally uninterested.
PRO: It Will Remind You Of "Zodiac"
Because, really, David Fincher’s "Zodiac" is so, so good and every movie should at least be a little bit like "Zodiac."
"Zero Dark Thirty" hits theaters on December 19
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