“ZERO DARK THIRTY” (2012) Review

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“ZERO DARK THIRTY” (2012) Review

Following the release of her 2009 movie, “THE HURT LOCKER”, director hit Oscar gold when the movie won Best Picture and she picked up a Best Director statuette. Three years later, Bigelow returned to the setting of the Middle East in this historical drama about the operation of the C.I.A. for the manhunt of Osama bin Laden, the leader of al-Quaeda whom the U.S. government held responsible for the terrorist attacks on this country in September 2001. 

The movie begins two years after the September 11 attacks with the arrival of a C.I.A. agent named “Maya” to the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan. Although she had been gathering information on al-Queda for two years, Maya becomes familiar with interrogation methods used by fellow agent Dan on several Islamic detainees, including one named Anmar. Maya evolves into a hardened, yet overzealous veteran. Over the next several years, Dan transfers to the C.I.A. headquarters in Langley, Virginia; Maya and her friend and fellow agent Jessica survive the 2008 bombing of the Islamabad Mariott Hotel; and Jessica is killed during a suicide bomber’s attack on Camp Chapman, Afghanistan in 2009. Although Maya is eventually reassigned to Langley following a personal attack on her outside her home, she continues the search for bin Laden. The efforts of Maya, Dan and two other agents named Hakim and Larry eventually leads the Agency to bin Laden’s location in a suburban compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. The movie ends with an attack on the compound on May 2, 2011 authorized by President Barack Obama.

“ZERO DARK THIRTY” has acquired a good deal of acclaim and accolades since its release. Conservative critics of the Obama Administration accused Bigelow and her fellow producers of plans to release the movie before the 2012 Presidential election as a boost for the President’s re-election campaign. GOP Congressional leaders also accused the Obama Administration of providing Bigelow and her team access to classified information during their research for the film. More liberal critics accused the director of using the movie’s torture scenes as justification for U.S. intelligence use of torture on his prisoners. Bigelow and Columbia scheduled the movie’s release date to December 2012 for a limited release to theater and January 2013 for a wide release. It has been proven that Bigelow and her team never received any classified information from the Obama Administration. As for the accusation that Bigelow is pro-torture . . . I believe it depends upon the individual moviegoer’s point of view.

How do I feel about “ZERO DARK THIRTY”? Generally, I believe it is an excellent movie that benefited from a talented director and cast. Bigelow did an excellent job in capturing the tense, yet meticulous methods that the C.I.A. used to track down bin Laden. Bigelow’s direction and Mark Boal’s screenplay pretty much did solid work in giving the movie a documentary style aura in this historical drama. The character of Maya is supposed to be based on an actual C.I.A. agent who had worked on the bin Laden manhunt. Thanks to Bigelow, Boal and a superb and award-winning performance by Jessica Chastain, audiences saw the gradual development of Maya’s character from C.I.A. newbie to hardened intelligence agent and negotiator, and finally to a woman obsessed with the capture of the man she not only held responsible for the September 11 attacks, but also for the death of the close friend who was killed at the Camp Chapman attack.

“ZERO DARK THIRTY” also featured some top-notch performances from the rest of the cast. Jason Clarke, who had previously worked with Chastain in “LAWLESS”, gave an excellent performance as Dan, the intense and ruthless C.I.A. agent who initiated Maya into the brutal world of intelligence interrogations. Kyle Chandler handed in another top-notch and complex performance as former C.I.A. Islamabad Station Chief, Joseph Bradley, who seemed to be at turns both impressed and exasperated by Maya’s obsession with the bin Laden hunt. I was surprised to see Jennifer Ehle in this movie. Then again, I have been seeing her in a great deal of American productions, lately. In “ZERO DARK THIRTY”, she gave a first-rate as Maya’s friend and colleague, Jessica. The movie also boasted some solid work from the likes of Mark Strong, Joel Edgerton, Harold Perrineau, Édgar Ramírez, Fares Fares, Stephen Dillane (who did possess a shaky American accent) and James Gandolfino.

I am perplexed about one thing about the cast. Could someone explain why Joel Edgerton was billed over Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Ehle and Mark Strong? All three had bigger roles than Edgerton. I realized that the latter portrayed one of the U.S. Navy SEALs that conducted the raid on bin Laden’s compound. But I do not see this as a reason for him to receive billing over Chandler, Ehle and Strong. Another problem I have with “ZERO DARK THIRTY” is that the movie struck me as a bit schizophrenic in its style. The movie’s first hour – which featured Maya and Dan’s interrogations of Ammar and other detainees and some detailed investigations struck me as rather dry. I would have fallen asleep within an hour if it were not for the torture scenes. And honestly? I find that rather disturbing. The movie’s second half seemed to shift in tone with the Islamabad Marriott Hotel and Camp Chapman bombings. The major characters – especially Maya – became more emotional. The second half also featured verbal conflict between Maya and Bradley, and also an attempt on her life. Once the Navy SEALs raided bin Laden’s compound, the movie’s tone shifted back to its dry and documentary style.

Speaking of both the torture and bin Laden compound raid sequences, both seemed to stretch out a bit too long. I understand that the C.I.A. used torture to gather information for their manhunt. Honestly, I am not surprised. I did not believe that the scandal over the Guantanamo Bay detention camp would end such interrogation methods. Personally, I find them repulsive. But I doubt that the C.I.A. or the U.S. government would care less about my feelings. But the torture scenes struck me as too long. I could have dealt with a minor on-screen torture scene. But I think Bigelow stretched it too far. I could also say the same about the SEALs’ raid on the bin Laden compound. I realize that Bigelow was trying to milk the suspense for all it was worth. I am sorry, but I found it difficult to accept the idea that the SEALs were in so much danger. I was not that impressed by the Camp Chapman sequence. I never knew about the attack until I saw this movie. But I pretty much guessed what was about to happen in this sequence at least five minutes before the actual attack. How disappointing.

I have noticed that the media has been consistently labeling Quentin Tarantino’s new movie, “DJANGO UNCHAINED”, has been labeled by the media as a “revenge tale”. I find this ironic, considering that the movie’s protagonist seemed more interested in saving a loved one than revenge. On the other hand, “ZERO DARK THIRTY” practically reeks of revenge. Some movie critics have noted this, but the movie has not really acquired a reputation as a “revenge tale”. I find this odd. Very odd.

I understand that “ZERO DARK THIRTY” earned both Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations. On one level, I believe the movie earned those nominations. Thanks to Kathryn Bigelow’s direction and Mark Boal, it is basically a well made movie that featured some top-notch performances from a cast led by Jessica Chastain. Unfortunately, I cannot say that I loved the flim. I barely liked it. It strikes me as a bit too cold for my tastes.

“SAFE HOUSE” (2012) Review

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“SAFE HOUSE” (2012) Review

One of the first hits of the year 2012 turned out to be a neat little political thriller called “SAFE HOUSE” that was directed by Daniel Espinosa. 

Penned by David Guggenheim, “SAFE HOUSE” is about a young and ambitious C.I.A. agent named Matt Weston, whose present assignment is the “housekeeper” of an Agency safe house in Cape Town, South Africa. When ex-C.I.A. agent-turned-international criminal Tobin Frost turns himself in to a nearby U.S. consulate, Weston is informed by his superiors at Langley that Tobin will be brought to the safe house by an Agency torturer named Daniel Kiefer and his men. Weston watches the torture, until the process is interrupted by mercenaries led by a man named Vargas. He has been after Frost for some information that the latter acquired from an MI-6. Kiefer and the other C.I.A. agents are killed by Vargas and his men. And Weston escapes the safe house with Frost as his captive.

As I had stated earlier, “SAFE HOUSE” is a neat little political thriller filled with exciting chase sequences and nail-biting fight scenes. All of this was filmed in and around Cape Town, Africa; which struck me as a refreshingly original setting for a spy thriller. More importantly, screenwriter Guggenheim allowed all of the action to revolve around the computer file that the Tobin Frost character had acquired. The file contained information on the illegal activities of various intelligence officials throughout the world – including those from the C.I.A. The Vargas character had been recruited to get his hands on the file and kill Frost in the process. Due to this subplot, Guggenheim managed to introduce the element of a “mole” within the C.I.A. And the mole in question might either be Weston’s mentor, David Barlow, or the latter’s colleague, Catherine Linklater.

I cannot deny that “SAFE HOUSE” is an entertaining thriller and I could easily see why it did so well at the box office. It possessed a tight plot concerning betrayal. The movie also questioned Weston’s determination to maintain his C.I.A. career by allowing Frost to recount his own intelligence career and the circumstances that led him to turn rogue. However . . . it was not a perfect movie. It has its share of flaws that will never allow it to be considered one of the best spy thrillers to come out of Hollywood.

I have complained in past reviews about the new style of cinematography and editing that has prevailed in action-adventures since the BOURNE movies directed by Paul Greengrass. Yep . . . the same type of cinematography, direction and pacing is also prevalent in “SAFE HOUSE”, thanks to director Daniel Espinoza, cinematographer Oliver Wood and editor Rick Pearson. Oh well. I suppose one has to endure some unpleasant aspects for the sake of a decent story. Speaking of the story . . . well, how can I say this? I enjoyed it. But I must admit that I found it rather predictable. It did not take me very long to figure out the “mole” who had sent Vargas to kill Frost. And I managed to figure out Weston and Frost’s fates at least a half hour before the movie ended.

Thankfully, “SAFE HOUSE” provided plenty of first-rate performances that allowed me to . . . somewhat overlook the movie’s flaws. Some of my favorite Denzel Washington roles have always been those that reeked of moral ambiguity. And Tobin Frost proved to be one of his most ambiguous roles to date. I must admit that I was a bit surprised by his character’s goal by the film’s last twenty minutes. I had assumed that his position as a rogue agent was a means to bring justice to the “mole” within the C.I.A. or in protest of some operation that threatened innocents. I was wrong. His actions had been purely motivated by greed. Yet, I could not help cheering him on, as he managed to evade his pursuers throughout the movie. Ryan Reynolds portrayed a less ambiguous role – namely the inexperienced C.I.A. agent Matt Weston, who has ambitions to rise within the Agency. Reynolds is already in his mid-30s, yet he did a first-rate job in capturing the naivety and ambitions of someone who could be at least a decade younger. This allowed Reynolds convey Weston’s gradual maturity with great skill. By the end of the movie, his Weston almost seemed like a completely different from the young man at the beginning of the film.

“SAFE HOUSE” also boasted some solid performances from Sam Shephard, who portrayed the garrulous C.I.A. Director Harlan Whitford; Vera Farmiga as C.I.A. operative Catherine Linklater, who seems determined to believe that Weston is a fellow conspirator of Frost’s; Liam Cunningham as the MI-6 agent who provided Frost with the files; Rubén Blades as a former contact of Frost’s, whose help he seeks in a local Cape Town township; Robert Patrick, who gave his character – C.I.A. torturer Daniel Kiefer – a sharp air of professionalism; and Nora Arnezeder, as Whitford’s French girlfriend, who left confused by his sudden determination to distance himself from her. My favorite supporting performance came from Brendan Gleeson, whose portrayal of Weston’s mentor, David Barlow, seemed to rival Washington’s when in regard to moral ambiguity. Gleeson injected enough mystery into the character to make a viewer wonder if he is the mole or not. At the same, it is quite apparent that he cares about Weston’s career and safety.

“SAFE HOUSE” may not be the best spy thriller to come along in quite a while. I found the plot rather predictable and I was not that impressed by the Greengrass-style photography and editing. But I cannot deny that Daniel Espinoza directed an entertaining thriller, thanks to a solid script written by David Guggenheim and an excellent cast led by Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds.