ZERO DARK THIRTY Review

Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. So goes the saying and so says Kathryn Bigelow's follow-up to her Oscar winning feature The Hurt Locker. You've no doubt heard of Zero Dark Thirty if not for anything else other than it is the Osama bin Laden movie. The film is so much more than this though, you won't see an actor foolishly playing bin Laden or even hear his name muttered all too often. What Zero Dark Thirty truly is is a procedural drama about the ins and outs of what it takes to track down the most elusive man on the planet. Oddly enough, much of this process isn't exactly what you might expect but is instead gathering small strands of information, holding onto what one interrogation or torture session provided and hoping it proves correct against the other interrogation and torture sessions being conducted. It is a sprawling epic that takes over ten years and condenses them down into just under three hours to provide a concise and basic account of what happened, what took place in May 2011 and how much work and how many lives went into making that night a possibility. There is the controversy over the torture scenes depicted early in the film and there are questions of if those actions led to actual intelligence that helped find bin Laden, but I wasn't thinking of that as I watched the film. It didn't take me out of the experience of the movie. Whether torture works for the purposes we need or not is another discussion entirely but what this film does, nearly flawlessly, is put us at the center of the research and inside the "they" that make things such as the death of bin Laden a reality. It is like a two hour ticking time bomb that then explodes into a truly intense final hour. The film isn't the grand masterpiece I expected it to be after hearing all of the hype and I have a few issues with it storytelling, but there is no denying it is one hell of a movie and an experience.

Kyle Chandler and Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty.
Beginning with a strong and effective reminder of why this manhunt existed in the first place Bigelow immediately jumps into two years after the attacks of 9/11 and the military presence in Pakistan. We are introduced to Maya (Jessica Chastain) as she arrives in Pakistan as well. This introduction begins with her looking in on Jason Clarke's CIA interrogator/analyst Dan as he questions one of the money men involved with the world trade center attacks. It is brutal, yes, we see the man waterboarded, placed in a dog collar and eventually in a small box as he mumbles about the date of an imminent attack. It becomes evident how strenuous the task of obtaining just the smallest hint of information is. This is largely a revelation to our senses as so much for so little seems unnecessary or even invalid yet it is how the film documents these small particles of clues in the bigger scheme of things and how they ultimately lead to something a little closer, a little more vital that places them on the correct breadcrumb. All film though is ultimately judged by the story it is telling and what makes this film so compelling is naturally the intrigue around the events this film is based on. This does not automatically make the movie a good one though, what separates Zero Dark Thirty is the way in which Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal have decided to tell that story. They have put together the most critical parts of a decade long investigation and have zeroed in on those certain sequence of events. We don't see any cuts to the White House where a Presidential impersonator signs off on the attack, we don't have news cameras bombarding our protagonist, what we have is a no frills way of storytelling that has so much trust and confidence in the power of the story it is telling that it doesn't rely on what is familiar to the audience to invigorate us as more mature viewers.

The qualms with the film also come in the form of its storytelling though. This is a long film, and the length is necessary, no one can argue that but as the first two hours of the film are a consistently paced investigative thriller there are fits of jumps and stops. This is somewhat to be expected with such a massive amount of information to sift through, but as the next part of the procedural unfolds and then the next part it does its job of ramping up the tension for what eventually comes in the final raid portion of the film, but other times it feels downright slow. I might be coming at this from the wrong angle, and some people will probably criticize me in this point, but what took away from the majority of the film for me was the same thing that also makes it stand alone. It is clear the point of this film is not to necessarily entertain but to inform, to tell an accurate account of a true story. Yes, the killing of Osama bin Laden is an intriguing hook but as we are given what feels like an unfiltered look at the process the government, and more specifically one woman, took to uncover the whereabouts of the terrorist there was not always something going on that engaged me dramatically. Even with documentaries we need a dramatic dynamic within the story to keep us interested in continuing to watch the film. I'm not saying that the film is necessarily boring in spots or that the argument couldn't be made for it being consistently dramatic but for me, my inherent feeling as I experienced the film for the first time was that of several dragging moments where I was hoping for more from individual scenes. It is an initial reaction and it is certainly possible that after repeat viewings I will come to find much more value in the film, but as of right now it takes just a little too long to become that heart-stopping thriller it so masterfully embodies in its second half.

Chris Pratt and Joel Edgerton portray members of Seal Team 6.
Regardless of how I feel about the overall greatness the film actually accomplishes there is no denying that Jessica Chastain absolutely owns her role and this movie. From that first moment Chastain reveals herself as Maya to that final shot where she sits inside a barren military transport and stares off not so much reflecting but more likely wondering where she goes from there. She has just identified the body as the man she has been obsessed with for over ten years and now that has come to an end, even if the war on terror will continue to go on. It is in that silent moment, contrasted by a clearly pleased pilot who asks where she wants to go and acknowledges her importance as she is the only passenger we get closest to Maya. Chastain doesn't respond or even look in the mans direction, but instead straps herself in and continues to look past the camera positioned right in front of her with a worn look on her face. A far cry from the intense, confident, headstrong woman she so fiercely embodies when dealing with her male bosses and imposing men of the White House or when she puts aside all of her moral and ethical questions about torture because she believes it necessary to get what she needs to accomplish her job. It naturally becomes more than just a job, but her life. We only learn of one of her friendships, developed after she arrives in Pakistan, and nothing more about her personal life. It is not so much about Maya the person, but the actions she takes that move this story forward. She simply happens to play a large role in those actions. I admire that Bigelow allows the story to navigate the characters rather than vice versa because it allows the cold tone the film carries, and arguably needs, to never melt.

Scattered throughout the rest of these proceedings we see great actors such as Kyle Chandler, James Gandolfini, Mark Strong, and Mark Duplass show up in small but effective moments that are elevated by their weight. Speaking of Jason Clarke earlier, this guy deserved a supporting actor nomination for his equally charming and intimidating turn as the CIA analyst and interrogator that trains Maya in the field. The way in which he transitions from a man determined, with no limits to a day to day guy in a suit is darkly satisfying. His role is smaller than Chastain's, but this is the only thing keeping him from being in the same league with his co-star. Chris Pratt and Joel Edgerton even show up in the latter half of the film as part of the Seal Team 6 who infiltrate bin Laden's compound and kill him. Both actors do formidable work to make us both afraid of the situation they have placed themselves in while confident in their abilities as we know how there tale ends. Zero Dark Thirty is a massive film, in both scope and intelligence and despite my feelings of discontentment at certain points along the way it is hard pressed to argue with the multiple achievements this film contains both in its performances and in its execution.