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Ben Around: Zero Dark Thirty

Posted on the 17 January 2013 by Scriptedwhim
Ben Around: Zero Dark Thirty
Some felt Kathryn Bigelow and her emotionally draining Osama bin Laden manhunt thriller "Zero Dark Thirty" got the shaft during Thursday's Oscar nomination announcement.
Perhaps the controversy the film has generated relating to torture had something to do with Academy voters' reluctance to hail it as the frontrunner we all presumed it would be. But what if the film's difficult moral questions and ultimate non-stance on its tricky subject matter left too great a burden on the voters and led them to opt out of taking any stance at all?
Because endorsing Bigelow's film would mean endorsing torture as a means to protect the United States. Right? Don't ask "Zero Dark Thirty." You won't get any answers. Not on whether or not using torture is the best tool to achieve results in the ongoing war on terror, and perhaps more importantly, not on whether killing the former al Qaeda leader made Americans feel that much better about the loss of more than 3,000 lives on Sept. 11, 2001. You feel an unexpected and thoroughly unpredictable range of emotions throughout this seemingly cold government procedural.
Based on reporting from its screenwriter Mark Boal (a journalist who also teamed with Bigelow on 2009 best picture winner "The Hurt Locker"), "Zero Dark Thirty" is a brutally realistic account of how the filmmakers insist the manhunt and ultimate raid on the Abbottabad compound actually went down. They tell it through the eyes of Maya (a reserved but forceful Jessica Chastain), a young and driven CIA operative who was recruited straight out of high school and spent every minute of her career hunting down Osama bin Laden, or "UBL" as he's nicknamed by government employees.
From the get-go, we get a sobering and often unflinching dose of Maya and her colleagues' relentless pursuit of bin Laden via violent interrogations and frustrating (but often necessary) bureaucratic obstacles along with the emotional and physical sacrifices made by its characters. Once Maya connects the dots on a UBL courier that pinpoints the investigation to Pakistan, the CIA gets the greenlight and the May, 2, 2011 raid is set into pulse-pounding motion.
The final 40 minutes of "Zero Dark Thirty" offer a real-time glimpse at the Navy SEALs' raid on the compound, seen mostly via night-vision goggles and handheld camera. But while the sequence is dark, jarring and quick, you never feel disoriented. Instead, you can't move at the SEALs do their job with precision and little time to waste arguing in a demonstration of thoughtful teamwork. (It's no wonder Nick Saban screened the film for his football team the night before they played in the BCS Championship game.)
You know the drill. The rest is obviously history. The film doesn't play up much suspense (although it's certainly tense) or mystery in terms of the outcome of the operation. But once the stealth helicopters return to base, we and Maya stand by to confirm the kill ourselves, with our own eyes. We must see it, something we as a country have worked, mourned and prayed for for more than 10 years in hopes of bringing justice and solace to those thousands who lost their lives.
But "Zero Dark Thirty" isn't there to make you feel better, or worse. Bigelow's film simply shows you what happened, and you can't control how that affects you or whether it mends any lingering wounds. For some, it might. For many, it won't. But either way, it's left up to you.
A review by Ben Flanagan
This review also appears at Al.com

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