Very rarely is a film able to capture current events in the way Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty does. Chronicling the United States’ efforts to capture Osama bin Laden, the project was in production before the leader’s death at the hands of Navy SEALs, necessitating a complete restructuring of the movie’s plot. It continues to make news on its own, named by various movie critics and organizations as the best film of the year and is the focus of a Senate investigation to see if the CIA shared sensitive information with Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal. You can’t buy publicity like this – as if it were needed. There is an inherent fascination by many to find out how one of the seminal events of our time came to be.
The film gets off to a gripping start as we hear the audio of many frantic phone calls made by people trapped in the World Trade Center during the attacks on 9/11. This is done behind a blank black screen, and it’s a chilling, effective reminder of the horror of that day and serves as the catalyst for the movie’s main character Maya (Jessica Chastain), a low-level CIA operative eager to work her way up the ladder. Transferred to Pakistan, she immediately immerses herself in the culture, attempting to piece together bits of information gotten from various sources in order to ascertain the whereabouts of bin Laden.
Maya soon figures out that this is like searching for a needle in a haystack. The terrorist has successfully covered his tracks and his followers prove to be a tight-lipped bunch. However, after hearing one of their sources speak of couriers who take and deliver messages to and from bin Laden from the outside world, she focuses on finding the identity of the man who serves this role for the leader, reasoning that if they can find him, he will lead them to the terrorist’s hiding place. Maya’s direct superior Bradley (Kyle Chandler) is less than impressed with this theory but her colleague Dan (Jason Clarke) pulls some strings to help her, even after the lead seemingly goes dead.
To be sure, this is a fascinating procedural drama as we witness the arduous, frustrating and deadly process these agents go through. That they had the tenacity to spend 10 years on this case speaks to more than simple job loyalty. The script, based on first-hand accounts, provides a thorough look at the process Maya goes through and it’s gripping. The film is punctuated with al-Qaida terrorist attacks that take place around the world, adding fuel to Maya’s ire and that of her colleagues. Bigelow stages these attacks in a startling manner, underscoring their random nature and the carnage they cause.
This is not for the weak-of-heart and neither are the torture scenes early in the film. Bigelow and Boal pull no punches in showing the extreme measures our operatives resorted to in extracting information. We witness waterboarding and other heinous exercises. The movie casts no judgment on these agents or the government, viewing these actions as ends justifying the means toward stopping greater tragedies from occurring.
Without question, the film is engaging but it’s a cold exercise, personified by the protagonist who goes from meek to being a crimson-haired avenger who stops at nothing to track down bin Laden, making sure she gets full credit along the way. Though Chastain is a fine actress, there’s very little gradation in her performance. The movie’s climax will come under scrutiny, as well as it’s filmed through night-vision goggles and is often confusing and unclear. It captures the step-by-step approach the SEALs used in breaching the compound and eliminating their target with accuracy. Unfortunately, it’s a bit anti-climactic. It goes on too long and bin Laden’s death is almost treated as an afterthought. That Bigelow strived for realism here is commendable, but it doesn’t make for gripping cinema. There’s an expert sense of efficiency at play here that’s impressive and makes for a good film. However, there’s very little heart, which keeps it from being great.
Contact Chuck Koplinski at email@example.com.