Niagara Gazette

January 8, 2013

CALLERI: ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ and ‘Promised Land’ go behind the headlines

By Michael Calleri
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — During the Golden Age Of Hollywood, the major motion picture studios would release, on average, a new movie every week, occasionally more. Adding smaller production companies such as Republic Pictures, RKO and David O. Selznick to the mix meant that American audiences could have seen at least 500 brand-new pictures a year. Double-bills were the norm in every neighborhood in every city and village in the country.

The studios and their producers, directors and screenwriters needed material by the truckload, and moviemaking teams scoured libraries, the Broadway theater scene and newspapers for new story ideas. Many of these features were promoted as being “ripped straight from today’s headlines.”

And, it’s from the headlines that we have a pair of new openings: “Zero Dark Thirty” and “Promised Land.”

“Zero Dark Thirty” is from director Kathryn Bigelow and her screenwriter Mark Boal, the duo that gave us the Academy Award-winning best picture “The Hurt Locker.” Their new effort is a chronicle of the decade-long hunt for al-Qaeda’s Osama bin Laden, a hunt that began in earnest after the attacks of 9/11. Does anyone not know the outcome? The film opens with sound, but no images, from the siege of the World Trade Center in Manhattan on Sept. 11, 2001 and culminates with bin Laden’s death at the hands of the Navy S.E.A.L. Team 6 in Abbottabad, Pakistan, during the early morning hours of May 2, 2011.

We can safely assume that hundreds upon hundreds of active C.I.A. and military personnel were looking for bin Laden’s whereabouts, but the movie is a procedural that concentrates primarily on the work of one C.I.A. operative, a determined woman named Maya (tensely well-played by Jessica Chastain). She is relatively new to the spy agency, but the eager Maya devotes her life to finding and killing bin Laden. The film opens with scenes of aggressive torture of suspected terrorists by an American agent (Jason Clarke).

Once a key clue is learned in the field — the fact that bin Laden has a courier who shuttles information back and forth — “Zero Dark Thirty” then takes us into the corridors of real U.S. government power (James Gandolfini is the C.I.A. director), where only Maya is 100 percent certain that bin Laden is hiding in a large house in Abbottabad. The final third of the movie, which plays like a less flashy, more somber Jason Bourne film (it’s never unserious like a James Bond spy picture), shows us the assault on bin Laden’s lair, mostly seen from the viewpoint of American combatants wearing night-vision goggles.

Across the board, the acting is exceptional, but I think Bigelow and Boal’s “The Hurt Locker” is clearly a better film. It has a much stronger lead character at its core and the tension is omnipresent. “Zero Dark Thirty” clicks along, but at 157 minutes it begins to drag. Concentrating on Maya’s research and analysis creates problems. I understand the reasoning, but she’s not as interesting as the director and screenwriter think she is. Scenes of her detailed examination of facts become repetitive.

“Zero Dark Thirty” is good, well-crafted and accomplishes what it wants to do. It’s a solid work of pro-American military propaganda, which is not to be taken as criticism. However, it’s up to the audience to decide if this is propaganda for the Obama administration, a decision some have claimed, but one that’s left open-ended. The president is mentioned, but he’s not a character in the movie. Overall, the film offers an interesting, albeit imperfect historical perspective, but not one that closes the chapter on this event by any means.

“Promised Land” tackles the volatile subject of fracking, which calls for a specific and controversial method for extracting natural gas from the earth. Some landowners who lease their property can suddenly find themselves without financial worries. Some homeowners can find themselves staring at flames shooting out of their kitchen faucet.

Directed by Gus Van Sant, and written by actors Matt Damon and John Krasinski, both of whom star, the movie follows Damon, an energy company employee, as he and his partner (Frances McDormand) try to get citizens of Western Pennsylvania to sign leases so that fracking can occur on their private property. Krasinski is an environmentalist opposed to the practice. There’s also a high school science teacher (a wonderful Hal Holbrook) and a corny romantic subplot involving a female teacher and Damon. The careful film examines both sides of the issue.

“Promised Land” has a real paint-by-numbers feel to it. I question the ending, but it’s what was decided by Damon, Krasinski, and Van Sant. Nicely acted, the superficial movie doesn’t quite plod, but it also doesn’t overly energize the arguments for or against fracking. It’s an earnest and cautious civics lesson about a subject that has divided communities. I’m glad I saw the film, but it needed to be a little less “Hollywood” and a little more aggressive. It needed a harder edge.



Email reviewer Michael Calleri at moviecolumn@gmail.