I'm not an Academy member and I don't have a vote, but if I did I would cast it unhesitatingly for "Zero Dark Thirty" for the best picture award. And I lament that Kathryn Bigelow, who directed the film, did not get nominated.
While I enjoyed "Argo," the other best-picture nominee depicting covert ops), it is, in the end, a formula movie, spiced up by Hollywood's valentine to itself in the form of a move within a movie, a farceur's look at Farsi life, with the jovial irreverence of Alan Arkin and John Goodman. It has a poitically correct framing device concluding with a Jimmy Carter voiceover that reminded me of the mock-editorial that may have cost an enterprising Times or Globe man his job: "More Mush from the Wimp." The movie also has a conventional narrative arc, ending in a crescendo of suspense. The joke signaled by the title ("Argo fuck yourself") goes a long way toward neutralizing one's reservations.
"Zero Dark Thirty" is a more complicated, darker, less conventional movie. The arc is there but is ambiguous: the main character, a CIA agent played by Jessica Chastain (left), achieves her aims but is last seen crying in an airplane in which she is the only passenger. The killing of Bin Laden does not override all the losses she (and the nation) have endured along the way.
The movie meticulously shows how intelligence works. It is highly dangerous and anything but glamorous. There are false scents, blind alleys, red herrings, b;atant lies, and the intelligence agent has no choice but to follow these even if, as may happen, a calamity may result. The hoodwinking of a sympathetic CIA agent, a friend of our heroine, leads to her murder and that of several of her colleagues.
The movie has been the victim of a smear campaign. Early on it shows scenes of waterboarding. The movie does not endorse this method of interrogation; it simply depicts it. Objections to the film's violence are also overblown. The violence pales next to the torture tactics used by the French in Algeria and shown graphically in more than one affecting movie. The conclusion of the movie, with Bin Laden finally located and killed, is managed without sensationalism. There are no celebrations and parades. The movie is as somber as the subject and it is dedicated quite eloquently to the victims of 9/11 in NY, of 7/11 in London, of other terrroist attacks across the globe (Pakistan, Afghanistan) and to the heroic sacrifices made by first responders.
Do not let the organized campaign against this extraordinarily intelligent and well-made movie deter you from seeing it. -- DL