A decade of frustration largely ignored.
Before I ever saw Zero Dark Thirty – it was released for several weeks in New York City and Los Angeles before it hit my location – I was well-aware of its reputation. General critical reception hadn’t yet christened it the best film of 2012, but it was definitely in the running. And why shouldn’t it be? An acclaimed actor and director come together to tell the story of hunting Osama bin Laden, a story that was personal in some manner or another to everyone in America for nearly a decade. It’s a story that lends itself naturally to big-budget adaptation.
Director Kathryn Bigelow does a fine job of adapting this story, but even at two-and-a-half hours, it feels rushed, even unimportant. This is a little disappointing, especially since her previous film – The Hurt Locker, which was very similar in tone – found much of its strength in its meticulous pacing.
Both The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty have their grounds in exploring post-9/11 military and government operations, but lest you assume Bigelow is falling into a very particular niche, the two are quite different. The latter is not a war movie, even though some of its more exciting trailer clips might make you think it is. Instead, it focuses on bureaucracy, red tape and inefficient government operations. Most of the movie involves protagonist Maya (Jessica Chastain) having a hunch no one else thinks is worth pursuing, then being right (kind of like Homeland).
Maya is reminiscent, in kind of a boring way, of Jeremy Renner’s Hurt Locker character. She’s a loner who lives for her job, and she is very good at it, even though her colleagues don’t understand her obsession. She is asked near the end of the film what else, other than hunting bin Laden, she has done for the CIA. Her answer, meant to provoke sympathy for her cause and to show her desperation, is “nothing.” Everyone else moves on to other things – at one point, Kyle Chandler’s character even chastises her for wasting time when they’ve got more pressing matters. This is supposed to show her tenacity, but instead, it somehow takes away from the gravity of the manhunt.
Zero Dark Thirty is a very good movie. The acting is pretty great (although I don’t exactly buy Chris Pratt, Parks and Recreation’s Andy Dwyer, as a member of SEAL Team Six), and the editing and cinematography are outstanding. There are some legitimately gut-wrenching scenes that are done to perfection, including the now-infamous torture sequence that starts the movie, played perfectly by a hardened Jason Clarke and a sheepish Chastain.
I want to point that out, because most of what I have to say about the film will sound bad: It’s mostly boring, it never grips the audience, and it never seems to get moving before it starts to end. The film is barely half over by the time the team finds the location of bin Laden’s notorious Abbottabad, Pakistan mansion, and fully 20 percent is dedicated to the military raid on the compound. Of course, that scene is what everyone wants to see, and it is done quite well – so it stands to reason it would comprise a large chunk of the film’s run time. But in the preceding two hours, the audience barely gets any hint of Maya’s or the U.S. Government’s decade of frustration.
Zero Dark Thirty was marketed as the story of the greatest manhunt in history, but without the context we all have from simply knowing how history played out, this film doesn’t do much to tell a good story. It just seems to go through the motions: Here is the waterboarding scene, here is the bribery scene, here is the suicide bombing scene, here is the raid scene. The United States used questionable tactics to achieve a goal that is generally perceived to have been worth the cost. To its credit, there is no thesis in Zero Dark Thirty– it presents the information to viewers, and then leaves them to come to their own conclusions.
There’s some fluff in between that reinforces the tedium of the manhunt, but unfortunately, tedium is not the basis of a robust movie. It feels like Bigelow and writer Mark Boal had a checklist of items and scenes the inevitable bin Laden movie had to include, and mechanically hit on all of them. It just so happens that they do it well, but this is not the definitive film about covert counterterrorism tactics Bigelow and Boal clearly hoped. It’s a good movie that tells an important story, but it’s not much more than that.