“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.

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“THE TAKING OF PELHAM 1-2-3” (2009) Review

”THE TAKING OF PELHAM 1-2-3” (2009) Review

Tony Scott’s new version of John Godey’s 1973 novel, ”The Taking of Pelham One Two Three” marked the third time Hollywood released a version of the crime drama about the hijacking of a New York City subway train. The first version, directed by Joseph Sargent, featured Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw. Nineteen eighty-eight saw the release of a television version that starred Edward James Olmos and Vincent D’Onofrio. I barely remember the 1974 version and I have never seen the 1998 version. But since I recently saw this new version, I might as well give my two-cents on the movie.

In ”THE TAKING OF PELHAM 1-2-3” (2009) , Denzel Washington portrays a MTA dispatcher named Walter Garber (Denzel Washington), who is assigned to the Rail Control Center due to an ongoing investigation that he took a bribe to recommend a Japanese car manufacturer for the next subway car contract. It is Garber who ends up as the liaison between the New York Police Department/the Mayor’s Office and a man named “Ryder” (John Travolta) who has led three other men to board one of the MTA trains and hijack in exchange for $10 million dollars in ransom money. Also in the cast are John Turturro as Lieutenant Camonett of the NYPD Emergency Service Unit, who guides Garber into communicating with “Ryder”; Luis Guzmán as Phil Ramos (a.k.a. “Mr. Green”), one of the hijackers; and James Gandolfini as an unpopular mayor of New York City, who is under heavy pressure to address the hostage crisis.

Since my memories of the 1974 version is vague, I might as well express my view of the movie. In a nutshell, it was a solid and decent movie that had the good luck to possess a decent script written by Oscar winner, Brian Helgeland (”L.A. CONFIDENTIAL”). Yes, Helgeland made changes not only from the original novel, but also from the 1974 movie. That was to be expected . . . even though I have no idea what the changes are. Wait a minute. I am aware of one particular change. The Walter Garber character portrayed by Walter Matthau was a transit cop. Not that I care, since I have very vague memories of the movie. And for once, Tony Scott’s penchant for MTV style direction did not bother me. I thought it mixed well with the movie’s story. However . . . the sequence that featured the NYPD’s attempt to deliver the ransom money through the streets of Manhattan struck me as slightly ridiculous and over-the-top . . . especially with the number of car crashes that occurred this scene. As one character had put it – why not deliver the money via helicopter? The audience would have been spared that ridiculous scene. And one last scene annoyed me. It had to do with Garber’s attempts to track down and arrest “Ryder” and recover the ransom money. I thought it was a silly and contrived scene. But I must admit that I enjoyed how Scott captured the kinetic energy of Manhattan and kept the movie’s pace from moving too fast or two slow. ”THE TAKING OF PELHAM 1-2-3” struck me as a well-paced film.

At least four performances in the movie managed to catch my attention. I found James Gandolfini’s performance as an unpopular mayor rather sharp and funny, and a nice departure from his some of his heavier past roles – including Tony Soprano. Another amusing performance came from Luis Guzman as one of the hijackers, Phil Ramos. Whereas the other hijackers – including Travolta – projected an over-the-top menace, Guzman gave a restrained and funny performance. John Turturro’s performance as the police hostage negotiator was also restrained, subtle . . . and intelligent. And last, but not least, I was very impressed by Denzel Washington’s performance as the MTA dispatcher forced into dealing with an erratic and dangerous hijacker. Like Guzman and Turturro, he gave a very restrained performance and did an excellent job in keeping in character with an ordinary man, dragged into an extraordinary situation. Washington also gave the best performance in a scene that featured “Ryder” forcing Garber to confess to the charges of bribery, in order to save the life of one of the hostages. The one performance that troubled me happened to be that of John Travolta as “Ryder”, leader of the hijackers. Not only was it over-the-top, it was the kind of performance he had given several times in the past in movies like ”BROKEN ARROW” and ”FACE-OFF”. Back in the 90s, these flashy performances were fun and amusing. In 2009, I found it a little tiresome. At least he was convincing as an intelligent and dangerous man.

Judging from other comments and reviews I have read about this film, many seem quite willing to dismiss it as a crappy film. As far as I am concerned, ”THE TAKING OF PELHAM 1-2-3” is not crap. Granted, it is not the best action thriller I have seen, because I have seen better ones. But I do believe that it is a pretty solid and entertaining movie that should not be dismissed, because it is not exceptional. But I can see the writing on the wall. Chances are it will fail at the box office. Too bad. ”THE TAKING OF PELHAM 1-2-3” may not be a masterpiece, but I think that it is a hell of a lot better than a very mediocre movie like ”STAR TREK”, which managed to get rave reviews.