It’s a crowded Oscar season for great films. But it’s a good thing everyone had Zero Dark Thirty’s place in line because it is easily one of the year’s most memorable. Zero Dark Thirty joins Lincoln, Argo, Beasts of the Southern Wild, The Master to tell memorable, vital American stories. It perhaps seems silly to single them out for that reason but after two years of international players in the Oscar race it’s thrilling to have some home grown talent knocking it out of the park.
I will write a more formal review later but some quick thoughts:
1. Jessica Chastain gives far and away the best performance of the year by any actress, at least here in the US — internationally, she gets competition from Emannuelle Riva and Marion Cotillard. It helps that Bigelow and Boal designed the whole movie around her character, not framing her behind, depending on, flirting with any man but instead, holding her own. She’s the smartest one in the room, the most confident and the reason we ultimately “get” Bin Laden. Last year and this year, the Oscar best picture nominees have mostly centered around a male figure whose redemption is the most important thing in the film. Well, for once the opposite is true and it’s breathtaking.
2. They don’t back off the barbarism of torture or of murder. Period. Anyone who thinks this is a movie that gives us a kill fantasy is wrong. The way Bigelow and Boal walked the line of the horrors of the Iraq war, so too do they now give us both sides of our so-called war on terror and the hunt for Bin Laden. Are the torture scenes too much? That’s the reality – the horror of it, the presumed necessity for it, and the complicated relationship our military and CIA have with it. To have made it more palatable would have been a lie. Bigelow’s characters endure it, and so must we. It’s important to know all that it took to pull this thing off.
3. Bigelow directs the shit out of this movie. The Bin Laden raid involves some of the most exciting scenes put on film this year or any year.
4. Boal’s dialogue stands out more this time, with one zinger after another. He must take the lead in the original screenplay race, I’m guessing.
5. Bigelow wanted Chastain for the role, which meant waiting and juggling schedules. Worth the wait. Chastain is a revelation.
Is that enough hyperbole for you? I will be writing plenty more later, but I’m guessing Best Actress is a showdown between Jessica Chastain and Jennifer Lawrence. Both are very good. The stronger Best Picture contender may end up taking that prize but Chastain carries the whole movie. We shall see how that one plays out.