I respected 2009-10 best picture winner "The Hurt Locker" but wasn't its biggest fan, so my expectations for the latest Kathryn Bigelow-Mark Boal combo piece "Zero Dark Thirty" were suitably tempered. However, the film delivered on multiple levels, and serious award nominations appear to be in store – with lead actress Jessica Chastain poised to go the farthest.
Though the film is "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" challenging at times in the first act, with names of key targets flying by, "Zero" soon settles into a riveting tale. Almost all major awards are in play: picture, director, original screenplay and lead actress, not to mention supporting actor (Jason Clarke) and supporting actress (Jennifer Ehle). (Bigelow, Boal and the three thesps plus supporting actor Edgar Ramirez attended the post-screening Q&A tonight.)
With almost no backstory off of which to work, Chastain nevertheless gives a dynamic, layered, feisty performance that is the film's backbone as it traverses time and geography from the 9/11 attacks to the 2011 raid on Osama bin Laden. For all the pundit love that Jennifer Lawrence has received for "Silver Linings Playbook," Chastain's is a more heavyweight piece of work – although I'd also argue that this year's standard to beat is Marion Cotillard of "Rust and Bone."
One thought that struck me during "Zero" is that it some ways, it out-"Argos" "Argo." It doesn't have that film's Hollywood-spawned hijinx – though there are a few great zingers – but it has every bit of its compelling mission, with even more scope attached. By nature, "Zero" is less of a crowd-pleaser, but more the type of film the Academy could be confident hanging its hat on. I also found myself comparing "Zero" to "Lincoln" in their telling of the pursuit of a national imperative through numerous key players, and found myself favoring the modern-day tale for its realism over the 1865-set piece that has more of a costume drama feel. It also comes off as nonpartisan while also providing a three-dimensional take on torture of suspected terrorists.
As far as actual Oscar victories go, the success of "The Hurt Locker" might hurt more than it helps – the Academy might not want to reward the same director and writer only three years later. At the same time, I don't really see too many people bringing up the same issue for Tom Hooper ("The King's Speech") and Les Miserables. In any case, Steven Spielberg has gone 14 years since winning best director ("Saving Private Ryan") and 19 years since best picture ("Schindler's List"), a factor that might be the icing on the cake for a film, "Lincoln," that is clearly hovering near the top of Oscar consideration.
Just a final, passing thought: What an interesting career Chris Pratt is developing. From "Parks and Recreation" to "Moneyball," and now some scene-stealing work in "Zero." It's a long way from living in the pit in Pawnee.