Wednesday, January 16, 2013

“Zero Dark Thirty” – An opportunity to teach you nothing.

In my 2012 Year in Review, I asked the question “what makes a movie good enough to be nominated for a Best Picture of the Year award?” As I noted, the only criteria we know for sure is “released that year,” even if that release was only a private showing for Steven Spielberg’s children.” As much as it sounds like I’m kidding, that’s only a slight exaggeration, as this happens somewhat often. What’s more is they aren’t even consistent about this as some movies are nominated in the year of their limited release and some in the year of their wide release. I looked at all best picture nominees back to 2000 and this is what I found.

• 2012 – Zero Dark Thirty was released on December 19 in five theaters in Canada and the USA and didn’t see wide release until Jan. 11, 2013.
• 2010 – The King’s Speech had a limited release on Christmas and wide release on Jan. 14, 2011.
• 2009 – The Hurt Locker was released on Sept. 4, 2008 at the Venice film festival, but not released in theaters until June, 2009.
• 2008 – Slumdog Millionaire was released on Aug. 30 at the Telluride film festival, but not released in theaters until January, 2009.
• 2005 – Crash was released on Sept. 10, 2004 at the Telluride film festival, but not released in theaters until May 6, 2005.
• 2004 – Million Dollar Baby had a limited release in December and wide release at the end of Jan. 2005.
• 2001 – Gosford Park had its premiere event in London on November 7, but wasn’t released until January, 2002.
• 2000 – Traffic had its premiere event in Los Angeles on December 27, but was not released until January, 2001.

That’s eight out of thirteen years where something screwy happened with release dates and even more amazingly, the last five (going back to Million Dollar Baby) won the award. I’m no statistician, but I’m pretty sure that’s not just an amazing coincidence. Based on this evidence, if I was betting on this year’s award, Zero Dark Thirty is the best bet, though definitely not the most deserving.

Zero Dark Thirty is exactly what you should expect from a movie based on real events, of which most of the details are classified and kept from the public. The director, Kathryn Bigelow, claims to want to tell the story of the investigation leading up to the death of Bin Laden, but how can she do that without those details? Of course, the real point of the movie is to depict the raid on Bin Laden’s compound, capitalizing on the event in dollars and possible awards. It’s standard Bigelow procedure, which she did three years ago with The Hurt Locker. She found a catchy military slang term to use as a title for a military movie about whatever the big topic is in the media and filled the movie out with a less-than complete story and a character made more important than the story itself. Then, it was IED’s and Jeremy Renner as a bomb disposal expert. This time, it’s the killing of Bin Laden and Jessica Chastain as a CIA agent (Maya).

As much as the commercials want to convince you that this is a compelling movie, it is anything but that. During the film’s laborious two hour and thirty-seven minute running time you will learn exactly nothing new about the investigation or the raid unless you are someone who watches and reads no news. The first two hours of the movie are essentially the fifth-grade history version of the events of 9/11 to the night of the raid. In other words, it’s a high level timeline showing high profile bombings (London subway, Times Square, Pakistan Marriott) separated by investigation scenes in which the agents learn Bin Laden has a courier. Seriously, that’s all they learn over the course of eight years of interrogating prisoners. It isn’t until some random agent finds an old file they’ve had for years that they link the courier’s alias to his real name. By this time, the movie had already run for more than ninety minutes and I know this because I was so bored I couldn’t stop looking at my watch.

After a few minutes are spent depicting them tracking down and following the courier to the safe house, we have to endure a few more scenes of Maya angrily writing the number of days since they found the house on her boss’ office window. I guess this was writer Mark Boal trying to infuse drama by trying to make the audience think the raid wasn’t going to happen, but the only thing it accomplishes is making the audience wait even longer for the raid scene. Unfortunately for the audience, it isn’t worth the wait.

In what can only be described as the most anticlimactic climax I’ve ever seen, SEAL Team 6 raids the compound and kills Bin Laden. This is probably the most accurate scene related to actual events in the movie, but it moves along so slowly and methodically that there is tension in the scene. This problem is only compounded by the fact that we already know from news reports of the actual event that none of the SEALS are injured or killed and that one of the two helicopters crashes. It’s nice that they wanted to keep that one part of the movie as close to truth as possible, but it just didn’t translate to compelling film.

While the movie is competent it is by no means the best picture of the year. On one hand, Chastain is easily the highlight of the movie, turning a good performance with flashes of excellence and the rest of the cast is decent as well (Jason Clarke, Joel Edgerton, Mark Strong). On the other hand, the movie is beleaguered by absurd dialogue. For example, when CIA Director Panetta (James Gandolfini) asks who she is (in front of a room full of other important people) she responds with “I’m the mother fucker who found the house.” Really…a fairly low-ranking agent is going to swear at the head of the CIA in front of a bunch of other very high ranking officials? Not only was this awkward and unnecessary, but erodes any credibility this movie was hoping to build, not to mention the believability of her character. But as I said before, the real deficiency of the film is its lack of new information relating to the investigation. And just in case you want to believe pieces of the movie are accurate, you will see the standard disclaimer at the end of the credits saying that the depicted events and characters are fictional. So, you won’t know what is truth and what is fictional, but, hey – anything to win an award.

Rating: Ask for five dollars back. The movie is far too long to tell you nothing you don’t already know.

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