In 2005 Paul Haggis’s Crash edged out early favorite Brokeback Mountain for the Best Picture Oscar in what many feel was a highly hypocritical decision based in homophobia. Years later when the demographics of voting Academy members was finally made public, it became clear that certain types of films would always have an advantage over others based on those very white, very male statistics.
Whatever the motivations were for that decision I’ve always felt that it was wrong for one very simple reason; uniqueness. Regardless of what you consider the quality of Crash to have been, the fact is there was a ‘Crash-style’ movie released the year before and the year after that were basically the same movie.
In order for a film to truly be considered the ‘Best Picture of the Year’ it should bring something new to the screen that audiences have never seen before. It should be groundbreaking and innovative. It should challenge the way we think about movies. Crash, while being a very well made film, never came close to doing that. Brokeback Mountain, on the other hand, did exactly that and more.
‘Best Pictures’ should be the rarest thing in Hollywood and this year there has only been one film that fits the bill and it’s Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty.
Having previously won the ‘Best Director Oscar’ for her work on The Hurt Locker, Bigelow was no stranger to factually based military stories. So it came as no surprise when she announced she’d be helming one of the most ambitious films in years that would attempt to honestly and accurately encapsulate the decade long hunt for Osama Bin Laden.
Several other films on this topic have been released but all have failed. In order to properly tell this story, a dramatic narrative film had to be constructed and filmed without relying on any of the normal conventions used in their creation. This film had to be as accurate and realistic as the rawest documentary would have been in order for audiences to believe what they were seeing.
Heroic one-liners, excessive character back stories and dramatization for the sake of story or pacing all had no place in this film. The moment the audience felt that they were watching an actor playing a part was the moment the entire process failed. And that was a moment that happily was never reached.
Most everyone knows (or should know) the bullet points of this story as they enter the theater. When they leave, however, they will be shocked by everything that they didn’t know or had never considered. This is yet another mark of a great film. Although I was very familiar with the subject matter, I was completely engrossed in the story for the entire 157 minute runtime. And I most certainly left with new information, new questions and the desire to reopen the conversation.
The issue that has been bandied back and forth most in the press has been the depiction of American sanctioned torture that seemingly led to the discovery of a vital piece of intelligence that ultimately led to the capture of Bin Laden. Questions like, ‘Are the filmmakers saying that torture was completely acceptable?’ or ‘Bigelow believes Bin Laden would never have been found without enhanced interrogation techniques,’ may make for snappy headlines but they are utterly ridiculous.
This entire film presents the audience with information and then sits back and allows them to come to their own conclusions. They don’t use any fancy tricks to lead you in one direction or the other. The only agenda being served here is the dissemination of factual information. The whole point is to then discuss and debate the implications of what you’ve seen.
Personally, I have many opinions about this and have enjoyed the discussions that have been sparked because of this film. But for now I won’t heap all of those specifics onto you. (Feel free to email me after you’ve seen the film though)
The cast of Zero Dark Thirty consists mostly of unknown actors or those that are right on the cusp of true notoriety; which was no doubt by design to keep that sense of realism alive in the minds of the audience. Jessica Chastain, who has been seen before in films like The Tree of Life and The Help, is truly outstanding as ‘Maya,’ the agent who refused to let go of the critical lead that led us to Bin Laden’s compound.
She begins the film very green and noticeably shaken by certain events. But as the years go by all of the stress, the anxiety, the politics, the death and carnage all take their toll on her and because of her amazing acting ability we see it happen very, very gradually. By the film’s end she has completely transformed. It isn’t as though she’s unrecognizable or is suddenly a distinctly different person, (which would have been the more disingenuous ‘Hollywood’ route to take) but the life experience she had gained had internally changed her and we see it all behind her eyes.
The story this film sets out to tell is a massive one and many of its elements will no doubt enrage some viewers; but they were successful in the telling of it.
The realism of Zero Dark Thirty and Chastain’s performance in particular are astounding and worthy of the highest praise.
After 2005 I had all but given up on believing in the integrity of the Oscars and the ability of its members to truly recognize and reward excellence. If in a few months we are able to throw around phrases like, ‘Academy Award Winning Actress Jessica Chastain’ and ‘The 2012 Academy Award Winning Best Picture Zero Dark Thirty,’ I may be forced to reevaluate my stance.
For a decade, an elite team of intelligence and military operatives, working in secret across the globe, devoted themselves to a single goal: to find and eliminate Osama bin Laden. Zero Dark Thirty reunites the Oscar® winning team of director-producer Kathryn Bigelow and writer-producer Mark Boal (The Hurt Locker) for the story of history’s greatest manhunt for the world’s most dangerous man.