Kathryn Bigelow’s gripping Zero Dark Thirty portrays the search for Osama Bin Laden in the aftermath of 9/11, through the eyes of a determined, young, lone-wolf CIA officer (Jessica Chastain)– and the movie pulls no punches.
It begins in Pakistan as Maya accompanies Dan (an excellent Jason Clarke) on a fierce interrogation of a prisoner who may have vital information pertaining to the terrorists. The movie has generated some heat in its depiction of the interrogators’ controversial methods (involving waterboarding) and while these techniques may be difficult to watch, they are powerful—and within the context of the movie— in light of certain results– shown to be a necessary means to an end. To the film’s credit, these scenes manage to humanize both the prisoner and his interrogators. (I’m writing this on the day the Academy Award nominations were announced, and while no list of nominees is ever perfect, I can’t help but feel that the Supporting Actor list should have included Jason Clarke. Clarke’s complex portrayal of Dan’s growing ambivalence, even as he continues to employ questionable, even distasteful techniques, is one of the best, understated pieces of acting I’ve seen this year).
Mark Boal’s fine screenplay for Zero Dark Thirty painstakingly charts the steps, miscalculations, confrontations, missed opportunities, betrayals, and small victories that marked the exhaustive hunt for Bin Laden. Explosive bursts of violence also bring home the ruthlessness of the terrorist forces, and the mortal danger faced by the pursuers. We see how technology is an asset, but also dependent on the human eye to interpret what might otherwise be difficult to see. Jessica Chastain’s Maya (a focused, nuanced, intense performance—perhaps her best yet) has to deal with institutional hierarchy and occasional organizational incompetence as she tries to capitalize on whatever leads she can find. When Maya finally locates her man–and manages to secure a Special Ops force–the resultant raid is far unlike what you might encounter in, say, an entertaining macho fantasy like The Dirty Dozen or The Expendables. It is a no-nonsense, methodical, graphic sequence brilliantly orchestrated by the director Bigelow (similarly deprived of an Oscar nomination) and a fitting climax to a powerful film.
On a lighter note…The Guilt Trip is a very enjoyable ride across America in the company of two likable performers: Barbra Streisand and Seth Rogen. They play mother (widowed, clingy) and son (scientist, inventor and would-be pitchman) on a cross-country journey in hopes of financial salvation—(Rogen’s scientist has created and heavily invested in a cleaning product—if he can only get some major company to buy it) and emotional closure (in the form of reuniting Mama Streisand with a long-ago lover). Rogen and Streisand have a nice chemistry, there are some genuinely funny sequences, and some lovely, touching moments. I must admit I was a little wary about taking this Trip, but I’m feeling no Guilt about it. Their bumpy ride provides a very smooth entertainment.