'Zero Dark Thirty' Finally Screens, Enters Thick of Crowded Oscar Race (Analysis)

Zero Dark Thirty - H 2012
Courtesy of Sony

Zero Dark Thirty, written by Mark Boal and directed by Kathryn Bigelow -- who both won Oscars for their previous film, 2009's best picture winner The Hurt Locker -- screened Sunday for press on both coasts. The film provides a two-hour, 40-minute overview of America’s nearly decadelong effort to hunt down Osama bin Laden. As a moviegoing experience -- as it was in life -- it is a long, cerebral and emotionally draining story, but it holds interest throughout. And thanks to a minimalist but powerful star turn by Jessica Chastain -- an Oscar nominee last year for The Help -- as well as the filmmakers' painstaking attention to documented detail and remarkable third-act re-creation of the Navy SEALs' fateful mission, it is worth the journey. As with fellow best picture Oscar hopeful Argo, you know how it ends before it begins, yet you can’t help but sit nervously on the edge of your seat as it nears its resolution.

Save for a select few long-lead outlets and journalists who agreed to an embargo, the film had been kept under an unusual shroud of secrecy. (THR’s film critic Todd McCarthy published his review earlier Sunday.)

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I imagine that Zero Dark Thirty -- the title is military-speak for half past midnight or after dark -- probably will be promoted as a dramatic thriller, but it might not be an easy sell to the public or the Academy. Like HBO's Emmy-winning Game Change, it recounts recent history that we all lived through, even if we didn't know all of the minutiae about what happened. Unlike Game Change, however, it will require people to leave their homes and buy a ticket to check it out, and, with a Dec. 19 limited release date, it might not be most people's idea of holiday fare. That being said, I am fairly confident that it will be rewarded with nominations for best actress and best original screenplay; the best picture and best director fields are particularly competitive this year, but I wouldn't be shocked if the film and Bigelow, the first woman to ever win the best director Oscar, managed to snag noms, as well.

The film centers on a CIA agent named Maya (Chastain), who, Boal has said, is based on a real agent, though some details have been changed. While she has received little public credit for the success of the bin Laden mission, her smarts and dogged efforts are as responsible for his death as the Navy SEALs who infiltrated his heavily fortified compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, and shot him on May 2, 2011. Recruited by the CIA out of high school and on the bin Laden hunt even before 9/11, her life became completely absorbed by the mission, even to the total exclusion of family, friends and romance. Some suggested she was "chasing a ghost," but she never wavered in her belief that a bin Laden courier, if located, would lead her to "Geronimo."

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Chastain --surrounded by a team of solid supporting players including Jason Clarke as a black-ops interrogator, Jennifer Ehle as a fellow intelligence officer, Mark Strong as her middle manager, Kyle Chandler as her superior in Pakistan, James Gandolfini as the head of the CIA and Joel Edgerton as a Navy SEAL -- essentially is asked to carry a movie for the first time, and she rises to the occasion. As most of us learned last year, she has the talent, looks and charm to be a superstar.

As promised by the filmmakers, the film has no political agenda whatsoever. In the background of scenes, brief news clips can be seen of Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, but those are more markers of time than anything else. The most overt political reference is a passing mention of the fact that the anti-torture policy that Obama ordered when he replaced Bush forced intelligence officers to be a little more creative with how they achieved their objectives.

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The film features a couple of lines of clunky dialogue that sound more like something Arnold Schwarzenegger would say than a real person -- "I'm gonna smoke everyone involved in this op, and then I'm gonna kill bin Laden" and "I'm the motherf---er who found this house" -- but other than that, it is pretty lean and mean, in my estimation.