Mar 142013
 

Evanston RoundTable, March 14, 2013

There’s a lot that’s troubling about “Zero Dark Thirty,” perhaps the least of which is the controversy – which ultimately embroiled Congress in hearings – about whether its depiction of torture helped bring down Osama Bin Laden. Three U.S. senators complained the movie was “grossly inaccurate” regarding the efficacy of “enhanced interrogation.” But the movie doesn’t purport to be a documentary; its opening credit says it was “based on first-hand accounts of actual events,” which gave the filmmakers plenty of leeway.

In any case the evidence produced by torture in the movie was only one piece of a big puzzle. Ultimately what succeeded was old-fashioned, on-the-ground intel, plus hard work, advanced technology and crafty intuition, the latter supplied by a CIA operative known as Maya and well-played by Jessica Chastain.

Unfortunately Ms. Chastain’s performance, which was nominated for an Academy Award, is not matched by other aspects of the movie. The script is merely workmanlike when it is not over-the-top melodramatic. “I’m gonna smoke everyone involved in this operation, then I’m gonna kill Bin Laden,” Maya tells a colleague. “I want targets,” a CIA bigwig screams at his staff. “Do your [effing] jobs and bring me people to kill.” I expected Marshal Dillon and Chester to ride onto the scene, wielding their trusty six-shooters.

There are also small things, like the title, a term for half an hour past midnight, which is never explained and bears no importance to the story. The score sounds plucked from a dismal horror movie. And Jessica Ehle, a veteran of some fine movies (“The King’s Speech,” “The Ides of March”) is miscast in the role of Jessica, Maya’s chatty friend and colleague. Whenever she’s on screen, the viewer becomes uncomfortably aware of watching “acting.”

But the most serious problem for a movie that’s bladder-wrenchingly long, more than 150 minutes, is that precious few of them generate any serious tension. It’s like watching an NBA game: the first 46 minutes don’t amount to much: it’s the last two minutes that count.

In “Zero Dark 30” the first two hours sift slowly through the torturous and tortuous process of finding the trail that led to the Bin Laden compound in Abbottabad. The last half hour, the raid itself, is competently played and even gripping, but we already know the outcome.

All this is a surprise considering the story is tailor-made for a great epic, and the writer-director team of Mark Boal and Kathryn Bigelow, who gave us “The Hurt Locker,” which won the Oscar for best picture of 2008, would seem ideal for the job.

But here they’ve made a movie that’s dreary and depressing – a buzzkill of a combination. It might be a good docudrama, but it’s a soulless film.

Far more interesting is “Flight,” the Robert Zemeckis-directed thriller now available on DVD. It stars the incomparable Denzel Washington as Whip Whitaker, a veteran commercial airline pilot. Mr. Washington gives a brilliant – nuanced, powerful and totally believable – performance as someone fighting, feeding and finessing his demons with coke and booze.

But even drugged out, Whitaker manages a miraculous landing when the plane suffers a catastrophic failure. The flight scenes are thrilling and terrifying – you may not want to see this movie if you are flying soon! Then, like the jet, the movie takes a sharp turn. Toxicology reports pick up traces of drugs in Whitaker’s system, and the rest of the movie is a serious morality tale about his “flight” from responsibility, succumbing to and coming to terms with addiction.

The supporting performances, with John Goodman as Whip’s pusher and Don Cheadle as his attorney, are terrific. But mostly it’s Mr. Washington’s command of the movie (he’s in almost every scene) that invests “Flight” with power, excitement and satisfaction.

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