Chuck Koplinski: 'Zero Dark Thirty' cold, yet fascinating procedural

Chuck Koplinski: 'Zero Dark Thirty' cold, yet fascinating procedural

Fascinating, yet cold, Kathryn Bigelow's "Zero Dark Thirty" proves to be a film that you'll end up admiring more than liking. Chronicling the United States' efforts to capture Osama bin Laden, the project was in production before the terrorist's death at the hands of Navy SEALs, necessitating a complete restructuring of the movie. It continues to make news on its own, named by various movie critics and organizations as the best film of 2012 and is the focus of a Senate investigation to see if the CIA shared sensitive information with Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal. You can't buy publicity like this — as if it were needed — as there is an inherent fascination by many to find out how one of the seminal events of our time came to be.

The film gets off to a gripping start as we hear the audio of many frantic phone calls made by people trapped in the World Trade Center during the attacks on 9/11. This is done against a blank black screen, and it's a chilling, effective reminder of the horror of that day and serves as the catalyst for the movie's main character Maya (Jessica Chastain), a low-level CIA operative eager to work her way up the ladder. Transferred to Pakistan, she immediately immerses herself in the culture and her agency's methods, attempting to piece together bits of information from various sources in order to ascertain bin Laden's whereabouts.

Maya realizes this is like searching for a needle in a haystack as the terrorist has successfully covered his tracks, and his followers prove to be a tight-lipped bunch. However, after hearing one of their sources speak of couriers who take and deliver messages to and from bin Laden to the outside world, she focuses on finding the identity of this man, reasoning that if they can, he will lead them to the terrorist's hiding place. Maya's direct superior Bradley (Kyle Chandler) is less than impressed with this theory, but her colleague Dan (Jason Clarke) pulls some strings to help her, even after the lead seemingly goes dead.

To be sure, this is a fascinating procedural drama as we witness the arduous, frustrating and deadly process these agents go through. The script, based on first-hand accounts, provides a thorough look at the 10-year process Maya endures, and it proves jarring, as the film is punctuated with al-Qaida terrorist attacks that take place during that decade. Bigelow stages these in a startling manner, underscoring their random nature and the carnage that ensues.

This is not for the weak-of-heart, and neither are the torture scenes early in the film. Bigelow and Boal pull no punches in showing the extreme measures our operatives resorted to in extracting information, as we witness waterboarding and other heinous exercises. The movie casts no judgment on these agents or the government, viewing these actions as ends justifying the means toward stopping greater tragedies from occurring.

Without question, the film is engaging, but it's a cold exercise, personified by the protagonist, who goes from being meek to a crimson-haired avenger who stops at nothing to track down bin Laden, making sure she gets full credit along the way. Chastain is a fine actress, and there's very little gradation in her performance, which is initially off-putting. However, it all for a greater purpose is a reflection of ourselves in the wake of 9/11. Cold, guarded, weary and full of vengeance, she is our surrogate in this hunt, and it's implied that bin Laden's demise leaves her feeling less than complete as the act is hardly equal to the terror he had precipitated. Perhaps this was inevitable, and it proves to be an interesting and unsettling commentary on what we've become as it paints a portrait of isolation and contained fury that's chilling and all-too-accurate.

‘Zero Dark Thirty’

(3 1/2 stars out of 4)

Cast: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Joel Edgerton, Chris Pratt, Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Ehle, Harold Perrineau, Mark Strong, Mark Duplass and James Gandolfini.

Directed by Kathryn Bigelow; produced by Mark Boal, Megan Ellison and Bigelow; written by Boal.

A Columbia Pictures release. 157 minutes. Rated R (strong violence, brutal disturbing images and language).  At AMC Village Mall 6 and Savoy 16.

Also new in theaters

Acts of kindness buoy harrowing "Impossible." (3 1/2 stars out of 4)

Director Juan Antonio Bayona puts us through the wringer with "The Impossible," a harrowing film recounting one family's improbable survival of the 2004 tsunami that occurred in the Indian Ocean. Employing cutting-edge special effects and an unflinching approach toward recreating the severity of the disaster which claimed an estimated 230,000 lives and displaced 1.7 million others, the film succeeds in capturing the sense of hopelessness that faced those who survived this catastrophe, only underscoring how miraculous it was that the family in question survived in tact.

Maria (Naomi Watts), Henry (Ewan McGregor) and their three sons are an English family, vacationing in Thailand over Christmas. However, on December 26th their lives are literally turned upside down when the first of many waves from the tsunami hit the shore outside the resort they're staying in, killing thousands and separating the family. While Henry is able to care for his two youngest, Thomas (Samuel Joslin) and Simon (Oaklee Pendergast), Maria and her eldest, Lucas (Tom Holland), is swept away in a torrent that places them miles away from civilization. With his mother severely injured, it's up to the young teen to get her to safety as well as find medical aid in order to save her life.

The nightmare that Bayona plunges us into is unrelenting and may be too much for some to witness. The film's recreation of the devastation is sobering and overwhelming as we see destruction, stretching to the horizon, riddled with dead bodies, pieces of homes, uprooted trees and other debris that paints a picture of a situation that's overwhelming and seemingly too large to navigate or manage. Equally effective is the director's recreation of Maria's plight, as we see the cause of her injuries rendered with horrific detail, as her experience is meant to be indicative of the thousands of others injured.

Yet, what you will take away from the film is the sense of hope that glimmers here and there through the simple acts of human kindness. A stranger allows Henry to call home to speak to his family, even though the battery is running low. Maria helps a young child that's been abandoned despite her being severely injured. Lucas sets out to help reunite displaced family members at the hospital where he seeks help for her mother. These are the moments that we cling to as they speak to the best part of our nature. In the face of overwhelming despair, acts of selflessness are the only things that sustain hope and prevent us from losing our humanity. And it is through these random acts of kindness, the film seems to be saying, that the impossible may be overcome.

"Texas Chainsaw 3-D" a rusty exercise. (1 1/2 stars out of 4)

In a recent interview, director John Luessenhop said he intended to bring "some level of integrity" to his horror reboot "Texas Chainsaw 3-D." This approach includes a scene in which one of film's teen victims is chopped in half, horizontally, and another where an overzealous police officer has the skin of his face peeled off while he's still alive. I guess everything's relative where "integrity" is concerned.

What made Tobe Hopper's original "Chainsaw Massacre" so effective was its realistic atmosphere and, believe it or not, the sense of restraint the director employed. Much of its violence is implied, as precise editing is employed to suggest rather than show its violent acts while the film becomes a horrific, immersive experience that succeeds in engaging the viewer on an emotional level, steadily increasing the horror until it's nearly unbearable. Bottom line, Hopper was more interested in disturbing viewers rather than simply scaring them, and he succeeded in creating a horror masterpiece.

That has never been the intention of any of the other six versions of the story that have come in its wake. The purpose of those flimsy efforts was simply to provide unimaginative, grisly shocks and cash in on the franchise's trademark name and character. The same holds true for Luessenhop's effort, which begins with promise but quickly descends into a cesspool of needless violence and by-the-numbers storytelling.

The heroine in question is Heather (Alexandra Daddario), who inherits a Texas mansion from a grandmother she never knew and heads there with a group of her friends who are soon to be grist for the grindhouse. What she doesn't realize is that the house comes with a rather gruesome inhabitant who has a penchant for chopping up folks with chain saws and wearing masks made from human skin.

The script is riddled with inaccuracies in terms of the timeline between the 1974 film and this one and doesn't bring anything imaginative to the table where Leatherface's psychology or misdeeds are concerned. The connection between Heather and the killer is inspired and promises a potentially intriguing continuation of the story in the already announced follow-up. Daddario can bring more to the table if she's required to in future iterations, but if Luessenhop and his crew can't come up with a more inventive script than this, it'll be more of the same bloody thing.

A member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association, Chuck Koplinski studied film at Chicago's Columbia College and has reviewed films for 20 years. For DVR alerts, film recommendations and movie news, follow Koplinski on Twitter at chucksmoviepicks. He can also be reached at chuckkoplinski@gmail.com.

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