In the three weeks since I saw Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow’s riveting chronicle of the hunt for Osama bin Laden, two things have happened. The action thriller has garnered several high-profile year-end accolades, from both critics and award groups. (We’ll have to see if Oscar will follow suit. Academy Award nominations are scheduled to be announced Jan. 10.)
The other effect the film’s upcoming wide release has had is the pundits’ rising chorus, expressing outrage over what they perceived as the filmmakers’ tacit support of enhanced interrogation techniques. There were also some raised eyebrows at the possibility that screenwriter Mark Boal, who collaborated with Bigelow on The Hurt Locker, might have had access to classified documents while doing research for this project.
Let’s nip this in the bud before I allow the controversy surrounding Zero Dark Thirty to take over discussion of the movie itself. Bigelow’s ripping yarn may be many things. What it most emphatically is not is rah-rah patriotism extolling the virtues of torture to fight the evil forces of terrorism. Bigelow and Boal are keen observers, not propagandists, and what they witness isn’t always pretty. They don’t believe in pussyfooting around, either. A black screen with frantic 9/11 calls opens their movie, and from there we’re taken to a prison interrogation where Dan (Lawless‘ Jason Clarke, terrific), a CIA agent who’d rather be back in Langley, strips his interview subject of his clothes, his dignity and, for several agonizing seconds, his ability to breathe properly. The sight is brutal, barbaric, and in no way represents an endorsement. Rather, this is a depiction of people who do believe that torture is a viable option. And no, the fact that Bigelow and Boal do not look away doesn’t mean that they’re on board with what’s taking place here.
Witnessing her colleague’s extreme Q & A is Maya, a young, headstrong and, as we will see, quite stubborn CIA operative. She’s determined, hungry to get results, and Bigelow’s direction matches the character’s laserlike focus. As Maya will learn the hard way, however, intelligence work is very seldom cut and dry. It’s a good thing she’s played by Jessica Chastain, because a role that’s required to carry the dramatic burden of a movie like this requires chops, and the Tree of Life actress, who’s in nearly every scene, forges on like a trooper.
Dan’s suspected terrorist eventually utters one name, but the wild goose chase that its mention triggers brings as many setbacks as it does advances. Zero Dark Thirty isn’t a movie that lingers on these agents’ triumphs. Before we started making headway, Bigelow and Boal point out, we kept missing the mark. Over and over. Dead ends were more common than those fruitful leads, and all too often resulted in the loss of innocent life. Through it all, Maya remains undeterred, not even when her superior, Joseph Bradley (Kyle Chandler, playing devil’s advocate), tells her she’s out of her mind. Lighten up already, Jessica (Jennifer Ehle), a jovial counterpart to Maya’s humorless resolve, keeps telling our heroine. For a moment we start wondering why Maya can’t be more like her more seasoned colleague. And then a dinner sequence between the two women, abruptly cut short when reality intervenes, reminds us of the minefield these operatives tread.
There’s little time for a life outside Maya’s mission, and then it dawned on me that Zero Dark Thirty is also an absorbing character study, a portrait of an obsessive pursuit that recalls All the President’s Men and David Fincher’s Zodiac as much as it does other 9/11 films like United 93, to which Bigelow’s film serves as a worthy companion piece. The film’s final half hour, which depicts SEAL Team Six’s nighttime raid on bin Laden’s hideout in Pakistan, unfolds with heart-stopping intensity. It’s a bravura, skillfully executed setpiece that, like the rest of this incisive, sharply constructed lightning rod, doesn’t waste a single frame. I can’t wait for the politics circling around Zero Dark Thirty to go away, so we can admire it for the gem that it is.
I suppose politics are inescapable for a subject as delicate as fracking (aka hydraulic fracturing), so let’s give Gus Van Sant credit. Promised Land, the Oscar-nominated director’s corporate-meddling-in-the-heartland conversation piece, doesn’t always come across as an issue movie. The way to get around the sermonizing, naturally, is humor, and there’s plenty of it in the screenplay by Matt Damon, Dave Eggers and John Krasinski, which reunites Van Sant with his Good Will Hunting muse in front of and behind the lens.
The story goes like this: Steve Butler (Damon) was raised on a farm. He saw his dad lose everything, so he did the sensible thing: He went to work for an evil corporation. His disarming, aw-shucks demeanor has gotten his employer that much richer in acquiring land to conduct their allegedly not-really-as dangerous-as-it-seems technique, but out on the field lobbying for their next town with partner in crime Sue (Frances McDormand), he encounters two roadblocks in the shape of local science teacher Frank Yates (Hal Holbrook) and a smart alecky environmental activist Dustin Noble (Krasinski).
Van Sant keeps things lighthearted and sprightly, but even while the quirky small-town antics eventually wear out their welcome, the bulk of Promised Land plays like a buoyant romantic comedy, thanks to some beguiling work by Damon and Rosemarie DeWitt (Your Sister’s Sister) as the schoolteacher he genuinely falls for. Alas, Van Sant and company felt the need to insert an eleventh-hour plot twist that has the unfortunate effect of trivializing its otherwise fair-minded look at its subject. If there’s a movie that did not need a gotcha moment, this was it.
Regardless of its shortcomings, though, Promised Land is an enjoyable lark that sweetens the pill…until it gets carried away by aggressive message-movie tactics. Van Sant’s most valuable ally here, actually, is cinematographer Linus Sandgren (Take Shelter), who shoots like an angel. I actually mean that literally: his God’s-POV aerial shots are not to be missed. His over-the-shoulder shots aren’t too shabby, either. A negotiation scene between Matt Damon and a local politician, for instance, is a grabber thanks to his first-rate camerawork. Say what you will about Van Sant and friends’ missteps. Promised Land still made this fist-pumping, justice-seeking lefty all warm and fuzzy inside.