Austin Reviews ZERO DARK THIRTY

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From the director of THE HURT LOCKER.  Who is that you ask?  Well, that’s Kathryn Bigelow.  I have been a big fan of hers.  I love NEAR DARK and really liked BLUE STEEL.  Of course the movie that introduced me to her was POINT BREAK, which is, no matter how cheesy it gets, really well shot and directed.  Her best movie to date for my money is still STRANGE DAYS, a highly original Sci-Fi film that is fucking awesome!!!  I never did get around to seeing K-19: THE WIDOWMAKER or THE WEIGHT OF WATER.  Her comeback film was THE HURT LOCKER, and while I thought it was good, I didn’t like it as much as her earlier work.  I am glad she won an Oscar for directing, and was really looking forward to her next flick, which is ZERO DARK THIRTY.

This is what everyone is calling: “that Osama Bin Laden movie”.  Yes, this is about the hunt for Bin Laden, and the eventual mission that led to his execution.  But at the center of this movie is a C.I.A. agent named Maya (played by Jessica Chastain).  The movie starts off as she is sent on her first assignment shortly after 9/11, which is to observe another agent named Dan (Jason Clarke) torture some suspects that may lead them to the infamous terrorist.  The film spans nearly 10 years as Maya and various other agents torture, interrogate, have meetings, and analyze intel.  They do finally get an idea where Bin Laden is hiding out and thus plan an invasion, though Maya’s superiors are skeptical.  The final 30 minutes pretty much focuses on the raid that led to the demise of Bin Laden.  But this movie tries to be more than just that Bin Laden film.  It’s also about Maya’s uphill struggle to find the truth.

This movie is getting TONS of hype.  Everyone is loving it.  By everyone, I mean critics.  It’s made several top 10 lists.  I try not to follow hype, but with this movie it was kind of unavoidable.  I kind of wish it wasn’t hyped up.  Because my immediate reaction following my press screening was: “This is the movie everyone is talking about?  …..Huh…….”

Don’t get me wrong.  It’s NOT a bad movie.  But it’s not particularly good either.  That’s not to say there’s nothing good here, cause the film definitely has its moments.  I like that the movie has a no-nonsense approach and that it’s going more for realism than the usual Hollywood glitz (like adding a romance or more explosions to the mix).  But it’s also not without its problems.  I have a tough time with political things, and when situations in movies are too technical, I kind of get lost.  I’m night the brightest bulb in the tree, so I got occasionally lost during the few scenes as characters spouted out confidential Intel to one another.  I also had a tough time connecting to the characters.  During the final raid, there is literally NO one the audience can root for, since we don’t know any of the individuals involved.  My colleage Jesse (who was at the screening with me) suggested that maybe that’s what they were going for.  Well then, mission accomplished for alienating me.  When after 115 minutes, we’re suddenly introduced to new characters who are the central focus for the remainder of the film, and we don’t know anything about them…….. yeah, you could say there’s some disconnect there.  And why even cast Joel Edgerton when you’re only going to show his face for 90 seconds?

Now, it may sound like I hated it.  I didn’t.  Not at all.  Let me talk about some of the things I liked about it.  The first portion which deals mostly with Maya observing Dan torture terrorists is pretty good stuff.  Jason Clarke easily gives the best performance of the film and it’s a pity he wasn’t nominated.  He’s got that sloppy nice guy look going for him, but like he tells a suspect, “I’m a monster.  I’m not your friend”.  But you can also see how this job wears him down.  Great character.  Too bad HE wasn’t the central one.  I also liked Jennifer Ehle as one of Maya’s co-workers.  She delivers a convincing performance.  There’s a taut sequence involving her character as she meets with a Saudi who may possibly give her information.  Very suspenseful.  The ending raid, while emotionally disconnecting, is technically well done.  From a filmmaking standpoint, this is the best sequence of the film.  I liked that it didn’t really have a score and was refreshingly quiet.  Not relying on loud noises and sounds to get excitement from the crowd.  That approach definitely lended to the realism of the situation.

But not being emotionally involved with the movie wasn’t my biggest problem.  My biggest problem was Jessica Chastain.  I really hate to go off on her because I have been a pretty big fan of her previous work.  In 2011 she exploded onto the scene with several films including TREE OF LIFE, THE HELP, TAKE SHELTER, CORIOLANUS, and THE DEBT, which I thought was her best performance that year.  So, what’s the problem you ask?  Well, she overacts.  A lot.  Well, for the first 30 minutes she really doesn’t do anything except look like that she needs to eat as she watches Jason Clarke water log prisoners.  Seriously, she looks sickly thin here.  Her face is so boney that it looks like a skeleton.  I couldn’t help but think how much better she would look if she just gained 20 pounds.  Anyway, besides her unhealthy look (which makes her look well into her 40’s while she’s actually 35) every single acting choice she makes is phony.  It’s all so dramatic that it feels like a performance.  I didn’t buy her character for a second.  She’s supposed to be this tough chick, but she came across weak to me.  I didn’t buy her aggressiveness at all.  I’m trying to figure out just what went wrong with her acting.  My guess is that after giving several great performances, maybe she has become too confident, therefore overacting.  She doesn’t feel fresh anymore.  It’s a very Hollywood performance.  Every single facial tick and vocal inflection seems forced.  Remember Emma Watson as Harmonie in the first few Harry Potter movies?  Yeah…. her performance is about like that.  She’s over expressive.  It seems like she was trying way too hard here.  Chastain really needed to tone it down.

The direction is fine.  But this isn’t the same Bigelow from the 90’s.  Her style seems more suited to HBO productions now.  Everything is solid and serviceable, but there’s nothing outstanding here.  During a certain bombing sequence in a restaurant, I couldn’t help but think how 1995 Katheryn Bigelow would direct that scene, which probably would have been done with a breathtaking unbroken steadicam shot, but instead it was kind of choppy with lots of edits.  Now, from anyone else I may have accepted it, but it’s from someone I know is capable of producing something better.

The script is fine I guess.  It’s a little too technical and clinical for my taste.  I prefer my films to have at least some heart and life to them.  While I thought the first hour and the last 30 minutes were pretty riveting, there was too many scenes of agents sitting behind desks trying to figure out how to capture Bin Laden during the middle section.  I also thought Alexandre Desplat’s score was pretty disappointing, as it sounded quite generic.  Something that you would here on an episode of CSI.

I wish I liked this more.  I really wanted too.  It seems everyone around me is praising the hell out of this movie.  Now, I’m not one of those critics that enjoys fucking up a fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes for the sake of getting hits on my site.  I WANTED to like this movie.  But the truth is, I was let down.  If it wasn’t as hyped up as much, I probably wouldn’t have been as disappointed, but I still wouldn’t have recommended it.  But because everyone is going nuts for this movie, I have to knock it down a few pegs.  While it has some tense moments and great performances from Clarke and Ehle, the film just didn’t involve me emotionally.

I was pretty upset that Bigelow got snubbed by the Academy…. until I actually SAW the film.  It felt like a really good TV movie, but Jessica Chastain’s phony and forced performance drags it down.  ★★ (out of ★★★★)

- Rated R for strong violence including brutal disturbing images, and for language.

- Running time: 2hrs 36min.

Check out Jesse Hoheisel’s review of ZERO DARK THIRTY by clicking here.

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Categories: Austin Kennedy, Reviews

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19 replies

  1. Thanks for the perspective, and backing it up.

  2. look like that she needs to eat as she

    to confident

    Maybe you were too confident in your writing abilities…

  3. You’d think there wouldn’t be so many grammatical errors on the internet, what with all the English professors offering their expertise. ;)

  4. I left the theatre thinking it was a good movie(not great) but also that I had seen ones a lot better this past year. Maybe people think they are being unpatriotic if they don’t love it.

  5. woahhh we really didn’t watch the same film. jessica chastain was incredible. this was a great, thoughtful, intellectual + artistic film. far from just a ‘war movie.’ in fact, i really admired how kathryn bigelow shied away from the jingoism this type of film could’ve been prone too, and made it with many facets.

  6. Thanks for not toeing the line. I went to see the movie with my brother… unlike him, I managed to stay awake for the entire movie. When it ended, Iturned to him and said that it was interesting because it gave us a look inside the hunt for Ben Laden… but it’s not a good movie.

    Characters move in and out, but character development is not really present. Things seem to happen mostly between scenes apart. Maya contradicts the other girl in the unit in one of the first scenes, and she returns a hostile look at her… then when she’s back in the movie like 30minutes after, she’s supposedly her best friend and her death devastates Maya.

    Add to that annoying camera shakes for no reason at times, which is a plague upon modern cinematography, and my inability to connect with Maya, as a character, she’s a cardboard cut-out.

  7. I agree with most of what you said and in my review I pointed out some of the same things that you did. Critics love movies like this for whatever reason and I predicted it would nominated for Best Picture before I even saw it. I actually couldn’t wait to go see it, but I was disappointed after sitting through the screening that I went to.

  8. im sorry but people seem to jump to the conclusion that the fact that bigelow decided not to make an all out action movie is what made the film intereseting and that saying you loved the film despite all the bureaucratic stuff and characters sitting behind desks makes you sound intelligent and a film connoisseur. for me the simple fact is i loved the bureacratic stuff and the last 30minutes of the film i found to be dull and overall the film just isnt that interesting, its just cold and un-engaging, there’s a film that also came out this year that didnt go the all action route and still managed to be amazing and its called ARGO. I genuinely beleieve if this film wasnt so hyped and argo didnt come out the same year i would feel maybe slightly less underwhelmed.

  9. This reviewer has got it spot on. Jessica Chastain’s performance feels incredibly forced, cold and unnatural. When she said – I am the motherfucker who found this place – I closed my eyes and shook my head. How could this get her the critics award…The initial torture scene just goes on and on when clearly, a few minutes would have conveyed the point across. The hunt itself is shot in a very procedural way with a lot of people involved having no real character development. For example, the three guys driving around in a car trying to track the informant are not a big part of the story, and as such we dont have any attachment to them. So, when there is a standoff between them and the bad guys, you dont feel any tension and dont find yourself rooting for them. Same with the seal team six. We hardly know anyone in the team. There is no involvement of the white house shown, no discussions, no conflicts, no differences of opinions, no planning of the raid. There is so much scope for great one on one dialogues between different characters, but that opportunity is wasted. Most of the movie is lost in these fact gathering scenes.

    Having said that, the best part of the movie is undoubtedly the raid on the OBL compound. The scenes where the stealth helicopters are making their way to Abottabad are beautifully shot. The mood and the pace keep you on the edge of your seat throughout. Perhaps, the better moment of Jessica’s character comes right at the end, when she finds herself all alone with no real place to go to and she bursts out crying. That was something I could understand and relate to. Only if we could have had more of that emotion from her…

  10. The sheer volume of grammatical errors really hurt your credibility and your opinion on the movie. Perhaps you should find a new career.

    • You should see my reviews before I edit them. They’re way worse! LOL!

    • Whoa, rude much. I write reviews too, and when I’m typing I’m trying to get all my thoughts down before I forget so sometimes there’s spelling/grammatical errors I miss. Unless you’ve never made any spelling or grammatical errors EVER in your entire life—> Lay off this reviewer.

  11. Oh, goody. Trolls.
    Sorry for that. It was obviously one person posting a very similar post under two different identities. They have been deleted. We have no problem with debate here at Film Geek Central. But keep in mind that this is not the place to flame, troll or spam the boards with links to websites or crazy conspiracy theories.
    I’m sure they’ll use this as an excuse to feel persecuted for their beliefs. But it’s not your beliefs that got your messages deleted, it’s your behavior.
    Sell your crazy to Alex Jones, we’ve got more than enough here already.

  12. Incidentally, Amy Poehler had the greatest quote about this film ever:

    “I haven’t been following the controversy surrounding ZERO DARK THIRTY, but when it comes to torture I trust the woman who spent three years married to James Cameron.”

    BOOM!

  13. Great review, and exactly reflects my thoughts on the movie. Glad I discovered your site.

    Jessica Chastain’s performance was not only not Oscar-worthy, it was truly awful. When she tells the detainee “you can control your fate by telling the truth” or sth like like that she was so wooden I actually burst out laughing; it was like bad t.v. movie acting.

    Also agree Jason Clarke was terrific; such a shame his character dissappears!

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