From its opening frames – a black screen overlaid with dispatcher chatter and other audio from Sept. 11 – Zero Dark Thirty, director Kathryn Bigelow’s follow-up to The Hurt Locker, declares itself as a movie that’s all about discomfort. There isn’t a single element of the film that isn’t about being jarred out of the normal, that isn’t about trying to fit pieces back together into something that isn’t quite whole. Like the modern tragedies it portrays, Zero Dark Thirty, based on “first-hand accounts” of the pursuit and death of Osama bin Laden, is filled with the disquiet and discombobulation of a world gone desperately wrong and the people tasked with putting it back together again.
No character is more discomfited than Maya (The Help’s Jessica Chastain), a fresh-faced CIA agent whose first foray into the endless maze of hunting Osama bin Laden is witnessing the prolonged and graphic torture of a captured insurgent in an undisclosed CIA facility in Pakistan. Maya is visibly disturbed at what she’s witnessing, but she stands by in mute witness anyway. This is not the first of Maya’s compromises in what becomes an obsessive, frustrating manhunt; it’s just the first in a long series of wrong turns and dead ends in what turns out to be a decade-long chase after the al Qaeda mastermind.
With the weight of recent history behind it and – spoiler ahead for the world in which you live – the knowledge that Maya and her team of analysts are eventually successful in finding and killing bin Laden, Zero Dark Thirty is propelled by equal parts frustration and anticipation. For the viewer, getting bin Laden is a question of when; for Maya and her team, it’s a frustrating, obsessive if. Emails are checked, phone records are kept, thousands of photos, pieces of film, and paper trails are scrutinized and dissected. This is the business of spycraft, and it’s punctuated by the occasional explosion and gunfire, but predicated on the tedious work of rooting out information and following one hint to the next. By the time Seal Team Six descends on a Pakistani compound (in what one character terms a “soft 60 percent” chance of finding bin Laden), the inevitable is a relief for all involved. Even knowing the outcome, the hunt for bin Laden becomes a strain, an uncomfortable itch that lingers long after it’s been scratched.
Much of this tension falls to the work of Bigelow, an accomplished action director who seems to have found her niche in the anxiety of 21st century military angst. With its teeth-chattering resonances and the immediacy of modern American life, Zero Dark Thirty has an undeniable way of passing its sense of disquiet on to the audience. Its triumphant final set piece, the raid by Seal Team Six, is nearly a full half-hour of green night vision-shaded intensity that’s every bit as off-putting as the blackness that opens the movie and repeats as the team lurks, horror-movie style, through the dark hallways of bin Laden’s hideaway.
Where Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal fall down is in turning what’s a naturally compelling story into what’s basically a procedural with all the depth and character of an episode of “Law & Order.” The torture scenes, interpreted as either pro- or anti- depending on your personal political filter, are presented largely without comment: A group of CIA staffers pause to listen to a first-term Barack Obama comment on TV on how the United States will not condone torture before resuming their work, but this is as far as the movie goes in terms of delving beneath the surface of a complex issue.
Zero Dark Thirty, for all its many charms and flourishes of enrapt filmmaking, is so wrapped up in the fine points of its historical subject matter that it overrides a basic consideration of its characters. Chastain gives Maya the exhaustion and world-weariness expected of someone taking on what would appear to be an endless, thankless task, but the character as written is fairly thin. A parade of familiar actors (among them James Gandolfini of “The Sopranos” as the CIA Director and Chris Pratt of “Parks and Recreation” as a smart-mouthed commando) pass through the film, playing largely indistinguishable suits and soldiers, and suffer similar fates. The movie relies on the urgency of its premise to carry it, but occasional attempts to inject Maya and her gang with depth and warmth mostly fail. Maya, post-raid, is given a small pause for reflection; it’s a nice moment that would have more impact had Boal and Bigelow invested more in Maya as a character.
These flaws, however, are just that, and point to a significantly different kind of movie lurking below the surface of this one. Bigelow seems content to lend her sure hand to a movie that derives its power not from its characters or any intrinsic depth of feeling, but from the sense of dread and bitter triumph it evokes from its audience. Zero Dark Thirty is no less compelling for taking this route, though any human story is quashed by a historical one.
Rating: 3 Stars
Film: Zero Dark Thirty
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Joel Edgerton, Mark Strong and Jennifer Ehle
Directed By: Kathryn Bigelow
Screenplay By: Mark Boal
Produced By: Mark Boal, Kathryn Bigelow, and Megan Ellison
Distributor: Columbia Pictures
Running Time: Approximately 157 minutes
Release Date: Jan. 11, 2013