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Zero Dark Thirty review: A choose your own morality adventure

Following the destruction of the World Trade Center, America was deeply wounded. Beyond the physical damage and loss of life, it was an open gash in our psyche, and one that refused to heal. It drove us slightly mad, and in our madness we embraced a new world order, built on justification rather than morality and ideals.

That wound has since become a scar, but like all scars it may never completely fade. History will be the eventual judge of what we were and what we did, but the so-called “Fog of war” is still very much clouding the last decade. Our actions, our morality, our ideals; they all took a hit and will require some soul searching for years, even decades to come.

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That is where the film Zero Dark Thirty exists. The movie itself is defined by the hunt for bin Laden, but it is also about the shadowy world operating under the skin of what was reported. It focuses on the actions of people we would never even know exist unless they screwed up. Their contributions to the world – both good and bad – remain mostly anonymous. Even the major events, like this one that became history, are only told using pseudonyms and composite characters gathered from second hand reports and deductions (as well as allegedly unauthorized access to classified material).

In this gray world, things like torture, more palatably known as “enhanced interrogation techniques,” are a tool that the CIA agents use. It is depicted as a necessity, even a duty that the agents take no pleasure in, but have no problem with either.

Zero Dark Thirty has already become controversial due to this depiction. In the film, the torture leads to a key piece of information that would eventually, years later, become instrumental in finding bin Laden. At face value, that makes the use of these techniques a tacit endorsement of the methods that have since been harshly refuted. But it’s more complicated than that.

There are three ways to look at it. The first is that Director Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker, Strange Days) is attempting to justify the use of extreme methods when dealing with extreme people. The information gained through torture is vital towards the end goal, and therefore it was justified. This viewpoint of the film is strengthened by the fact that several people in the know have claimed this is simply not the way this happened.

Former CIA officials and operatives have stated on record that enhanced interrogation is not just ineffective, but often leads to false information as well. They also say that the information that led to bin Laden, or more precisely his courier, was not obtained through torture, but rather multiple sources replying on more traditional methods of intelligence gathering. Critics of the film point to this and claim that it shows that Bigelow is ignoring facts in order to show torture as justifiable.

The second way to look at the film is that we should automatically accept torture as a terrible act, and so the actions taken in order to further our goals taint us. By removing any sense of outrage for the audience to hold on to, we become complicit in the actions that our government authorized. We are all culpable for what happened. It’s a stark reminder of how easy it is to lose our morals, and how simple it would be to not care. That’s a somewhat optimistic view though, and relies on the audience being revolted by the torture being depicted. Showing these tactics to be successful makes it hard to completely dismiss them, even if the real world has since.

A third option, however, is that the film is simply trying to portray the times as they were, without a filter, and without any sense of hindsight. The agents, played brilliantly by Jessica Chastain (Tree of Life, The Debt) and Jason Clarke (Lawless, The Chicago Code), are worn down by the world they find themselves living in, but not to the point where either even consider quitting. It weighs on them, but they are accepting of their roles. The consequences are subtle, but not inescapable. When the climate changes and the Enhanced Interrogation Techniques are prohibited, the characters simply adapt without debate.

When it comes to torture the audience is left to their own devices, and left to decide if the ends justify the means. But while that is certainly the most controversial aspect of the film, it is just one part of it.

Zero Dark Thirty is Maya’s story, and the character of Maya, played by Chastain, is based on a supposedly real life CIA operative. Maya is driven and dedicated, yet also human and operating in extraordinary circumstances that she grows used to without thinking much about it. Perhaps it is heroism, perhaps it is just stubbornness, but she refuses to stop.

Chastain is perfect for the role. She is able to convey a great deal of emotion without a single word, which is important for a character that isn’t ever a driving force because her role as a covert operative requires her to be far more low key. Rather than trailing the bad guy, she needs to convince others that she is correct and have them follow the bad guy. Then when she can step up and take the lead, she does so easily but without ego. It would be easy to call her character “haunted,” but that would do her a disservice. She is certainly affected and changed by her experiences, but she rolls with them, as people do.

It isn’t an easy role by any means, but Chastain is suited for it. She is also helped by talented actors at every level, from Kyle Chandler (Super 8, Argo) as her CIA boss in Pakistan, to Joel Edgerton (Warrior, The Thing) as Patrick, a member of the team that actually assaults bin Laden’s compound. With the exception of Chastain who is the star, and possibly Clarke, this film is very much driven by an ensemble cast and it features no weak links.

And that is a very good thing, as this movie is very light on the action. There is nothing wrong with that, but the ads for Zero Dark Thirty can be very misleading. The trailers feature every explosion in the film, and are capped by a tense scene of soldiers assaulting a compound. That’s all in there, of course, but there is no way you can seriously consider this an action movie. Those that were lured in by the ads featuring chases and explosions will be severely disappointed.

Zero Dark Thirty is not going to be for everyone. It paints a grim and often disorienting picture, and while you may root for the characters you won’t become attached to them – there just isn’t enough of of them on screen. Even the main character of Maya is distant and hard to relate to, but that’s the point. The world of Zero Dark Thirty is real – or at least a fictionalized look at a very real world.

The movie takes place over several years and features quick glimpses of events and relationships that are never given time to bloom on camera. There is a definite end goal that the movie is hurtling towards, which means characters are introduced and forgotten once their job is completed. That puts the film back on Maya, who as a character has no friends or life beyond her work. There are moments when it is hard to connect with anyone in the film, which makes Zero Dark Thirty a bit more like a documentary than a movie. It is a fascinating, albeit somewhat cold and aloof film.


The question of morality is constantly under the skin of this film, but it makes no judgments. It offers a point of view though, and many might disagree with the lack of a counter argument. That may seem like it is approving of torture because the often cited pitfalls aren’t presented, but the film is a look at what happened without the benefit of looking back.

Zero Dark Thirty is surely bound for massive Oscar love, and Chastain especially deserves that. It’s a fascinating film, filled with plenty of thought provoking moments. It drags at parts because of that though. There is nothing and no one to connect with, and the up tempo moments tend to fizzle out rather than expand – as they often do in real life. As it takes places over several years, it touches on numerous things without ever really focusing on them.

And yet it is a brilliant movie. Cold and aloof at times, but brilliant. Just be warned that the trailers aren’t a good indicator of what to expect.

Editors' Recommendations

‘Thor: Dark World’ review

Thor: The Dark World goes all in. The 2011 big screen introduction of Marvel Studios’ God of Thunder kept itself relatively grounded with an Earth-focused story – Midgard-focused, for you deep cut nerds – and an overarching threat to all of humanity. The Dark World, on the other hand, falls closer to The Lord of the Rings. It’s epic. The safety of the entire universe is threatened by the Norse vision of dark elves. There are hulking creatures of myth. Swords and shields and magic, but then there are also lasers and force fields and spaceships too.
Things get a little weird.
Phase 2 of Marvel’s elaborate spider-web network of big-ticket blockbusters continues with Thor (Chris Hemsworth) in an uneasy alliance with his miscreant of a brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston). There’s an argument to be made that the Avenger’s romantic connection with the feeble human Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) is at the heart of this story, but the moments that pass between Thor and Loki are among the movie’s most captivating.
Tom Hiddleston all but steals the show as the living embodiment of Marvel’s take on the God of Mischief.

It’s ridiculously nerdy story, swimming with mouthfuls of words like Svartheim and Heimdall. A race of malevolent dark elves that predate creation want to get the universe as we know it back to the days of darkness, a time before crap like planets and humans and Asgardian dominion over all. Pulling off this feat involves recovering a long-lost power known as the Aether, and then wielding that power at the crucial moment when the Nine Realms line up, a time known as the Convergence.
At a glance, it seems like a hard story for the average person to relate to. There are many details connected to completely foreign, fantastical concepts, along with beings and locations that simply don’t fit into easily identifiable norms. That it all works and makes sense, even for those completely unfamiliar with the Marvel universe, is a miracle. Especially with a script that has no less than three different writers attached to it.
Propers then to director Alan Taylor, who keeps the story moving forward at a steady pace without losing sight of the need for careful exposition. The two-hour running time flies, only rarely stumbling on unnecessary details. The middle section feels slightly bloated around Thor’s time spent with Jane in Asgard, but the focus on their doomed relationship – she’s a puny, short-lived human, he’s a near-immortal Asgardian with god-like powers – feels like stage-setting for the larger story.
Taylor gets commanding performances out of his leads, with Hiddleston all but stealing the show as the living embodiment of Marvel’s take on the God of Mischief. His wide, toothy grin is an all-consuming presence on the screen, filled with friendly menace and conniving good cheer. He’s a danger to all, a true villain, and yet you can’t help but kinda like the guy. The only shame is that we don’t see more of him.

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‘After Earth’ review: A father and son battle predictability in the future
after earth review a father and son battle predictability in the future jaden smith volcano

It’s tough to review an M. Night Shyamalan film without giving at least a hint of spoilers. His films have gained a reputation for having a twist of some kind, so to confirm that there is a twist in After Earth would be to spoil an otherwise predictable story, while saying there is no twist would give you a clear picture of the film’s ending from the first moment.
That makes discussing the story difficult, but not impossible. After Earth can be boiled down to the single cliché of overcoming fear, but to an almost insanely exaggerated degree. There’s a smattering of a redemption tale and a son and his estranged father thrown in there too, just for good measure. Story is pretty much an inconvenience for this movie. 
A thousand years of backstory is quickly addressed and then taken as a given. After years of abusing the planet, humanity is forced to flee the Earth. The remaining population finds refuge on the planet Nova Prime, but an alien race objects, and drops creatures called Ursa that have the remarkably specific ability to see humans from the pheromones they put off when afraid. They quite literally smell fear. Score one for the power of clichés.
After this groan-inducing revelation, humanity begins to train to eliminate fear. This leads to something called “ghosting,” the ability to completely mask your pheromones by eliminating all traces of fear, thus rendering you invisible to the Ursa.
After being rejected as a member of the Rangers, an elite group that fights the Ursa, young Kitai Raige (Jaden Smith) goes on what should be a simple trip with his father Cypher Raige (Will Smith), a Ranger General and the first man to ghost. Things go sideways and they end up the sole survivors on Earth, which has spent the last millennium changing to the point that everything from the insects to the air can kill humans.

All of this is explained in the first 20 minutes of the film. The aliens humanity fights are never seen or mentioned beyond their Ursa-dropping, the Earth’s radical change in climate and evolutionary habits is never discussed, and the fact that the young and fearful Kitai is obviously not qualified to be a Ranger is never explored. You are just expected to accept these things as the setup for what is the story of Kitai’s survival and growth, as he has to travel over 100 kilometers to find a device that will bring help - all while his father is gravely wounded, but fortunately still able to give sage-like advice. Naturally, an Ursa is involved in a phenomenal coincidence, meaning Kitai must learn to master his fear. Oh, and there’s a backstory of Kitai blaming himself for something from his childhood that he couldn’t possibly have been responsible for. You can guess where that goes.
And there you have it, the entire story. There is a bit of secondary drama as Kitai’s oxygen supplements grow dangerously low, leading to a pointless moment of truth between him and his father, but for the most part you know everything you need to within minutes. When an alien that can kill humans that are afraid  is on the loose, how many possible ways can the story go? There has rarely been a plot and setting so tailored to one simple outcome. It’s really not that different from the sports movies of the 80s where a teen plays against all odds and scores the game winner, accept After Earth is far more simple minded.
The real attraction of the film comes from the off-camera relationship between Will and Jaden Smith. Other than that there is nothing really remarkable about this movie. The effects are average, the dialogue is often dull, and the greater sense of the future setting is barely hinted at. And that is After Earth’s greatest crime. The world is ridiculously tailored to the contrived plot, but it is still interesting – or it could have been if there was even a mild effort at building it.

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Review: ‘Star Trek Into Darkness’
Abrams tweaks the loyalists and thrills the clueless with 'Star Trek Into Darkness'
shielding your eyes from the glaring lights of star trek into darkness

Jokes about J.J. Abrams and his love for the lens flare used to be cute, but they take on new meaning after you've been subjected to Star Trek Into Darkness.
The light scattering comes so frequently and swallows up so much of the screen that portions of the actors' faces are often obscured while a performance is delivered. This should not be. It shatters the illusion that sitting in a darkened theater is supposed to create, and - more importantly - it is artistically out of place. The dreamy haze of the lens flaring is constantly at odds with Star Trek's grounded fictional science.
This speaks in part to the disconnect that longtime fans feel between the source material and Abrams' revised take on Gene Roddenberry's creation. The science fiction of yesteryear's Star Trek was always firmly moored to an established foundation. Even if you didn't possess the knowledge that the series' futureworld marvels were built on established theories, there was always an ever-present sense of legitimate pseudoscience seeping out from every frame and every jargon-filled utterance.

Abrams is a born storyteller with a real knack for weaving the sorts of fantastical tales that Old Trek tended to rein in. He managed to strike an effective balance between knowing nods to franchise lore and sci-fi blockbuster spectacle in his 2009 series reboot, but Into Darkness swings too wildly toward both extremes. It's either too slavishly locked to referencing the roots of the series or too caught up in melting audience eyeballs with searing visual splendor.

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