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This article was first published 11 years ago  » Movies » Review: Zero Dark Thirty offers up a superheroine

Review: Zero Dark Thirty offers up a superheroine

By Raja Sen
February 15, 2013 13:53 IST
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A scene from Zero Dark ThirtyZero Dark Thirty works as an action movie, writes Raja Sen.

Sometime after 9/11, seminal comic book artist (and frequent shock jock) Frank Miller announced the ultimate America-in-vengeance-mode comic book.

Tastelessly titled Holy Terror, Batman!, it was meant to be a tale of the Dark Knight taking on Osama Bin Laden, a bigger baddie even than The Joker.

Somewhere down the line Batman was booted from the equation and Miller went his way to create Holy Terror, an awful, awful comic that pretty much vilified Islam itself. The caped crusader would have been disgusted.

Zero Dark Thirty, directed by Kathryn Bigelow, is the sort of film Frank Miller would envision before he turned it into a bloody, politically-incorrect mess.

In it there is a determined young heroine (played by the increasingly ubiquitous Jessica Chastain, who features in virtually everything worth seeing) and she is an unflinching superheroine. Two parts Batman, two parts Maverick from Top Gun, with several pinches of gunpowder.

2012 may have given us The Avengers, Tony Mendez, Django and even, hell, Batman himself, but it is Chastain’s Maya who stands as the most macho hero of them all.

Which wouldn’t be such a bad thing if Bigelow wasn’t so goddamned proud of it. All of Zero Dark Thirty -- based, it implies, on classified Intelligence information -- is about how Maya had one helluva hunch (that Osama’s hiding in plain sight) and how right she was.

Chastain rides that cocky-awesome horse with flair and makes for a highly effective cowgirl, but that shouldn’t disguise the plain fact of it all: replace her with another Jessica, say Alba, and this would be a Michael Bay movie.

Fine, that might be an exaggeration, but Zero Dark Thirty is an action movie. Which is it’s own kind of awesome. Bigelow has always been a very solid action movie director, and this movie belongs more on the Point Break side of her filmography than to the Hurt Locker


Which, to me personally, is a bit of a shame. It’s very well performed, but this really is a template action movie (just try sticking Rambo in it and watch it go deliciously kablooey) and template action movies should not take themselves this seriously.

And they should not be a hundred and fifty-seven minutes long.

The fashionably incoherent shaky-cam opening is weak, and while the film has some particularly crackling action sequences -- one of which is seriously, memorably heavy metal -- there’s a lot of padding.

It must be remembered that we go in knowing Maya’ll be right, with the script ensuring we never doubt here. It also isn’t a spoiler to say that the Americans get Osama. Whoop-de-doo. But making a ‘thriller’ where everyone knows what’s coming is dashed difficult, and to truly pull it off, Zero Dark Thirty needed to either be a lot tighter or a lot more stylish.

Bigelow, however, clearly knows what she’s doing; the film is a rabblerouser, an unflagging crowdpleaser. Except sometimes it all looks too obvious, too inevitable.

The film’s kicked up significant controversy about how it glorifies the use of torture in interrogation. Does it indeed show torture as a cure-all? I believe it does, and what Bigelow and (screenwriter and former journalist) Mark Boal ignore is the fact that while torture can indeed be most effective, it can also be disastrous.

Not saying so is particularly irresponsible, and though it’s true most action movies aren’t held to that standard of accuracy, Bin Laden is no Lex Luthor. This was a film that needed more insight, more nuance, than it offered.

That said, as an action movie it completely rocks. Just not as what it pretends to be. It’s a wailing guitar-riff of a movie, with an incessantly climactic drummer. Shake your head to it good, but don’t try and listen to the words.

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Raja Sen in Mumbai