“As Fine A Piece Of Filmmaking As You Will See”

“It’s an odd thing realizing that you’re seeing a movie that is a step above most of what you have seen in the commercial cinema this year,” MCN’s David Poland wrote last night. “My pulse gets faster, I start being a little hyper-vigilant, even though I don’t take notes in movies — at least the first time through — and I start hoping, beat after beat, scene after scene, that the high won’t disappear.

“And that’s what I felt from the very first minutes of Zero Dark Thirty tonight.

Kathryn Bigelow & Mark Boal are in a kind of sync that is rare in the history of cinema. Boal has raised the bar on the output of Bigelow’s master-level visual skill by giving her material to work with that is seriously challenging and meaningful. She’d make a great Bond movie, I suspect, but that was her earlier career. This is the stuff of Lean and Bolt. Of course, even that relationship had its misses. But this, the second movie for this duo, was ripe to be mediocre or even horrible. So there was enormous pressure to deliver…and in spite of that, they did.

“Comparisons to All The President’s Men are completely valid. But an even stronger beating heart lies beneath this material. B&B personalize the big picture for the audience in a not-so-tricky way…they put us in the room with torture…they remind us of the violence and danger inflicted by terrorists…and they let us experience the ‘it’s a job’ side of life and death. Because the truth of this story…the truth of almost all stories…is the balance between all those truths. ATPM has a lot of that balance too… but in the end, it is still about reporters and The Big Story. The stakes are much higher when lives are on the line in a very human, not movie-like, way. And Jessica Chastain is B&B’s way into that humanity.

“There are some truly great performances by actresses this year. Marion Cotillard is a miracle in Rust & Bone. Jennifer Lawrence is going to be one of our great stars for years to come and her superstar turn in Silver Linings Playbook shows us why, beyond doubt. But Chastain turns the double trick…movie star stuff and the in-your-face character work…and her movie is a more overt heroic tale than either of the other films.

“The supporting cast – and everyone else is supporting the one character with significance in each of the three acts – is flawless. Jason Clarke, Jennifer Ehle, Edgar Ramirez and Mark Strong kill it in the first act. (Everyone else, including Kyle Chandler, is great too.) The second act brings us Stephen Dillane and James Gandolfini and the return of some 1st acters and more terrific turns. And then, the third act is fronted by The Edgerton Boys.

“And Bigelow creates three quite different worlds for each act: the foreign war, the polite suited war that is Washington, and the last, where she takes one of the most well-worn tropes of the film world, ‘the raid’, and finds new notes and flourishes (some by subtraction), making it one of the best ever.

“This is as fine a piece of filmmaking as you will see. And while many will prefer other types of films – and that doesn’t make them wrong, just with different taste – this film hits to all fields in a way that others just don’t even try for. There are a few ‘forever’ films this year, starting – for me – with Amour. But when you run into a movie that has some real epic size, historic subject matter, thrills, a few great laughs, and boasts the skill set on display here…this is a different kind of collectable. Plus, you get three films for the price of one.

“Can’t wait to see it again.”

  • michael

    Wow. I have wanted to see this film since the first trailer, but now I am counting the minutes until this opens. I wonder how much of this review will be in the blurbs and on the poster. Dare we utter the possibilty of a best picture nom?

  • ghost of a ghost


    We can’t play this game anymore, but
    Can we still be friends?
    Things just can’t go on like before, but
    Can we still be friends?

  • Alexander


    (Just kidding.)

  • Mark

    Unless this movie also has a long scene of Ben Affleck drinking a bottle of Johnny Walker on the night before the raid, then I have the feeling that ZDT will kill any talk of an Argo BP win.

  • joe banks

    and David “Dreamgirls” Poland is never wrong . . .

  • Mr.x

    Mixed feelings. I read ‘No Easy Day’ and he was actually there when it happened. So why see the movie? Might still watch it.

  • great scott

    Yeah, David “Finding Forrester” Poland can always be trusted. Wonder how the noodles tasted last night.

  • Mr. F.

    Or, a much shorter — and accurate — assessment of two awards contenders:

    Poland, on ZERO DARK THIRTY: “As fine a piece of filmmaking as you will see.”

    Wells, on SILVER LININGS: “As fine a piece as you will see.”

  • Gabe@ThePlaylist

    This is one of the VERY rare cases where I’m almost insulted that someone mentions OSCAR in the same sentence as “Zero Dark Thirty.”

    This is the mature, thoughtful, and still shit-kicking movie the Bin Laden killing deserved. It’s such a foregone conclusion, and so much of it is board meetings and hushed conversations, and Bigelow still made the most tense film of the year.

    It’s clear-headed, no-bullshit asskicking. There’s one scene where someone paraphrases that “known unknowns” Rumsfeld quote as a sort-of excuse, and one guy just smacks him down with a “what are you talking about?” This is the sort of stuff that politics have ZERO bearing on. One group of people on a manhunt to find what might as well be a ghost, and how they caught him, illegal rendition or no (and boy, is there plenty of illegal rendition in this).

    Even for someone with serious moral misgivings about these black sites in real life, I was absolutely able to jibe with Jason Clarke’s burnt-out torturer. He talks about leaving his post as Lord of Black Site Torture and blames it all on “seeing too many men naked” but you look into his eyes, and you KNOW it’s FAR worse than that. You immediately like this character, and you don’t despise him in any specific way, but you definitely fear him. This is a man who sees himself becoming a monster, because he sees the means to an end has conquered whatever humanity still exists inside him.

    It’s a capital G GREAT movie. If you’re not riveted from moment one, you don’t deserve a filmmaker as great as Bigelow, doing her finest work thus far. This is one of the premiere action filmmakers of today working at her peak. This is where Bigelow joins the ranks of Fuller, Peckinpah, Milius.

  • JoeBomowski

    Doesn’t it kind of kill you guys now that this movie is coming out that you didn’t work on it in some capacity?

    It’s one thing to write about film or express your love, but this seems like some Michael Mann HEAT or FIGHT CLUB type all-timer that you’ll watch on DVD and go, “FUCK, look at these actors, I wish I WOULD HAVE BEEN IN THIS MOVIE,” even if on the periphery, or snapped the clapboard, or held a boom, or worked on the cinematography or something. Doesn’t that just brutally depress anyone else?

    No one will ever convince me that film critics wouldn’t rather be WORKING ON THE ACTUAL FILM…. Like JOEL EDGERTON and MARK DUPLASS and KYLE CHANDLER are literally IN this movie, IN FRONT OF A CAMERA, doing their acting…. and we’re just out here watching it.

    That doesn’t upset or depress anyone else? I kinda feel this about EVERY movie anyway, but especially like when you watch BOOGIE NIGHTS or something and you’re like, CHRIST, I would’ve been the age to audition for this, why can’t I at least be in the BACKGROUND IN SOME PARTY SCENE?

    Aren’t you guys FURIOUS you’re not at least extras in a military outfit in some the base camp scenes in ZERO DARK THIRTY?

    It’s making me irrationally depressed. As is the fact that Gabe gets to see awesome movies like this a month before I do, and I’ll have to see it with a paying crowd.

  • Glenn Kenny

    I cannot tell a lie: it’s a great movie, but when Duplass showed up it was a SEVERE buzzkill. JoeBomowski, you are wise in your generation.

  • Gabe@ThePlaylist

    Duplass ALWAYS ruins things for me. I was stunned that he exited stage right and I was like, wow, movie not ruined.

    This movie is so good not even Chris Messina could fuck it up.

  • bluefugue

    >It’s making me irrationally depressed. As is the fact that Gabe gets to see awesome movies like this a month before I do, and I’ll have to see it with a paying crowd.

    Lex, you could go make a movie tomorrow. Couple K to shoot, rent some lighting gear, buy a $500 HD camcorder and an external mic, you can throw a rock in LA and hit twelve actors who will work for free. Cut it on Final Cut. Cut it on iMovie, who gives a shit? Fuck, there’s no way you could do worse than Joe Swanberg.

    You said it yourself: “irrational.” At least you recognize it, so I hope you don’t put more energy into it.

  • Cerulean

    Gabe, nice review. I trust your taste in film. How does it compare to The Hurt Locker? How is Jessica Chastain compared to Jeremy Renner in THL?

  • JoeBomowski

    Yeah, but nobody would ever see it, and it would be some low-rent no-budget thing.

    I want to LITERALLY be in the movie ZERO DARK THIRTY.

  • jery

    THERE’S your movie, Lex. Your version of “Last Action Hero”.

  • Rashad

    bluefugue: I doubt lex has a “couple k” to throw around for a bullshit short film no one would watch. Plus who the helll would he get to star in it? He’s better off with his youtube videos.

  • Raising_Kaned

    “I doubt lex has a ‘couple k’ to throw around for a bullshit short film no one would watch. Plus who the helll would he get to star in it?”

    This probably describes literally 90% of any first-generation filmmaker’s fears (Jason Reitman, Jake Kasdan, et al. don’t count). The only (major) difference being — they went ahead and did it, anyway.

    Chris Nolan went from Following to The Dark Knight in only 10 years. Let me repeat that once more: TEN YEARS.

  • Tits McGee

    I wrote a movie called “How to Make an Independent Movie” just because I figured there were enough assholes out there who thought they might learn something to make it a minor hit.

    Still might make it someday.

    Needs a rewrite though.

    Wonder if Greta Gerwig is available…

  • Rashad

    Kaned: Nolan wasn’t fat, balding, and 40.

  • Gussie Finknottle

    Yes, because being fat and balding definitely precludes you from succeeding as a movie director. Rob Reiner just cheated by becoming an actor first. And any of the myriad other corpulent or hair-deprived directors we might care to mention were definitely anomalies too.

    Congratulations on yet another incisive and insightful post Rashad. Your consistency is astounding.

  • ghost of a ghost

    Maybe that would be better stated as, “Nolan wasn’t obsessed with being fat, balding and 40.”

  • Gussie Finknottle

    I know I’ve contrived this somewhat, but my mention of Rob Reiner has moved me to bring up a mind altering realisation I had today. I literally cannot fucking believe that Saul from Homeland is Inigo Montoya. Although I guess they’re both swashbuckling in their own way!

  • Gussie Finknottle

    At the risk of marking myself down as a pedant, I think that subtle change does indeed make all the difference ghost of a ghost