Going to the Movies by Catherine Taegel – “Zero Dark Thirty”

Photo by PoPville flickr user ep_jhu

Going to the Movies is a new PoPville feature by Mount Vernon Triangle resident Catherine Taegel.

I’m Catherine Taegel, a MVT resident, and member of the wonderful DC Film Society(which anyone can join!). I have had no formal training in reviewing movies, but as a lover of all movies – old, new, big, and small – I look to provide thoughtful reviews that will intrigue and guide locals as they attempt to sort through the various cinema offerings in our area.

The other night I attended the screening of “Zero Dark Thirty” at the Regal Gallery Place cinema. Telling a story that is so engrained into the very fabric of our society is a tall order, even for Kathryn Bigelow, whose movie “The Hurt Locker”, portraying the war in Iraq, won a slew of awards, including the Oscar for Best Picture, in 2010. She’s no stranger to controversy – often criticized for glamourizing and sensationalizing war and the personal stories occurring within them. Her direction of “Zero Dark Thirty” is no different.

 Continues after the jump.

The months leading up to the release of the movie has only built more momentum for the film. Questions of the extensive access the director and screenwriter had to Langley, whether or not sensitive and classified information were released, and the level of importance torture played in the capture of Osama bin Laden has even led to a Senate inquiry.

It’s true. Enhanced interrogation is in your face within the first ten minutes. You are introduced to the main characters in the same motion and while it is uncomfortable and disarming, it sets the stage for the movie. However, it is important to note that this scene, and general issue, becomes woven into the story, and is not the story itself. The scene and acts themselves provide a necessary dichotomy as we follow these CIA agents on their quest to find Osama bin Laden and what it appears to take to track a terrorist.

There is a lot of time, events, and character development to cover in “Zero Dark Thirty” and Kathryn Bigelow wastes no time. The film opens with the sounds of September 11th and goes through the next decade like chapters in a book – using major violent global attacks purported by al-Qaeda as its anchor. The timeline is familiar and fresh in our minds. Real images and reports are interwoven to keep the audience connected to the actual events it is attempting to portray. The film deals with heavy subjects, but you are never in one scene long enough to linger on any emotion.

As the real life CIA Agent Maya, whose real name is unknown as she is still in the Agency, Jessica Chastain is the star of this film. Convinced that Osama bin Laden’s courier network will lead the CIA to the mastermind, Chastain is the center and the pillar of this film. Her portrayal shows Maya as stoic and vulnerable, barely keeping it together, but clearly driven by a higher purpose. (She even says at one point that she believes she was spared from a terrorist attack to see the mission through.) The film keeps pace around her and you are caught up in her determination in nearly every scene. She adeptly manages this film.

The rest of the actors are no slouch, but there sure are a lot of them. Jessica Chastain’s male counterpart throughout the movie is played by Jason Clarke, an Australian actor, who may not be a name but his face is familiar and his performance kicks off the movie, presenting himself as a clear mentor for Maya. (Jason Clarke had roles in “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps”, “Lawless”, and will be in the upcoming “Great Gatsby” directed by Baz Luhrmann.) The only character portrayal I had an issue with was Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, played by James Gandolfini. Luckily, the obscure casting is not a momentum killer.

Bigelow does an amazing job of providing insight into tracking a terrorist – working with our allies, being duped by our supposed allies, blending into the scene, seeing through the crowds, navigating political waters, and setting up the raid. The climax of the movie – Navy SEALS entering the compound – gets your adrenaline pumping. The scene is patient, methodical, and engrossing.

There are parts of this story that can never be verified, but it does not mean that the story cannot be told. It is a compelling, character-driven story that captures the climax of an American story that defines a generation.

“Zero Dark Thirty” can be seen in wide release on January 11, 2013.

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