Spoiler Alert: Osama Bin Laden dies at the end. With that out of the way I can get to discussing the movie without worrying about ruining the ending. Joking aside, this is serious and tense thriller about one woman’s obsessive years-long quest to find and eliminate Osama Bin Laden. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow and written by Mark Boal (both of The Hurt Locker fame), Zero Dark Thirty is a taut docudrama starring Jessica Chastain, Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Ehle, Jason Clarke, Mark Strong, Edgar Ramirez, Joel Edgerton, Chris Pratt, James Gandolfini, and Stephen Dillane.
Maya is a CIA officer. That is all she is, her days and nights are focused on rooting out leads that will someday allow her to find Osama Bin Laden and eradicate him. Zero Dark Thirty is the story of her twelve year long mission, and obsession, to do so. Facing resistance and skepticism from her bosses (Kyle Chandler and Mark Strong), her colleagues (Jennifer Ehle), and people higher-up (James Gandolfini), Maya’s intelligence and willpower is pushed to the limit as she inches ever closer to what could be Osama Bin Laden or, just as likely, yet another dead-end.
Jessica Chastain, fresh off a year that is about as impressive as any in recent memory, returns with a subtle, methodical bang as Maya (probably not her real name), the heroine of this inevitable bit of film-making (it took only eighteen months to get this movie to theaters from the day Bin Laden died). Chastain deserves a lot of credit for choosing to be understated and restrained throughout the entire film, when Maya could have easily been a more bombastic character, as well as being a significantly less effective one. Chastain has a penchant for playing sad characters, whether that be her understated mother and wife in The Tree of Life, or the housewife oozing with sex appeal in The Help, her performances always exhibit an understated, yet intense melancholy that colors every scene she is in, and it works.
Maya doesn’t want to catch Bin Laden, she needs to catch him, its in her bones. When asked what else she has done except for the CIA aside from trying to catch this man , her answer is quite revealing: nothing, that is all she has ever done, it is what she has been trained for (recruited straight from high school). Zero Dark Thirty isn’t about Bin Laden, not really, it is a character piece about Maya that has been both fleshed out and dampened by the use of dramatizations of the tragedies of the past decade. Maya is a fascinating character in a movie that never could have truly been about her, and its a shame.
The supporting cast does their (sole) job by being both recognizable and distinguished. No character aside from Maya has any real character arc or development and each (relatively) major character has roughly the same arc: person is doubtful of Maya, person is still doubtful of Maya, but that person is no longer an issue for Maya. Fantastic actors like Mark Strong and Kyle Chandler among others are given little to do (arguably at the expense of each other, actually) as a result of the significant ensemble and the heavy focus on Maya’s godlike foresight.
The script is tightly written, suspenseful, and damn lucky everyone already knows how the story ends. If this was a movie about finding anyone other than Bin Laden, Maya would not be the triumphant woman who saw what everyone else was missing, she would be the obsessed woman that fate smiled upon. Zero Dark Thirty hinges strongly on the notion that these vague clues Maya has spent a decade on are worthwhile (we know they are, but that’s irrelevant) and chooses to cast anyone expressing valid skepticism as too blind or too frightened of victory or too something else, rather than the objective, logical observer they truly are. There is a scene a where Maya threatens to tank her boss’ career if he doesn’t give her what she wants…based on a hunch. She is right and that is good, but I can’t help but feel that the motivations (and rational concerns) of supporting characters should not be minimized for the sake of convenience for the protagonist (especially in a two and a half hour movie that drags in certain spots).
Zero Dark Thirty is the second most tense movie I have seen this year (after Argo), but is also one of the least suspenseful thrillers in recent memory. Every explosion that occurs was telegraphed and every death was obvious five minutes before it went boom. This isn’t totally Bigelow’s fault given the high-profile and recent nature of her subject matter, but I should not be able to snap my fingers at the moment a surprise bombing happens while viewing a film for the first time. This may very well be nitpicking, but choosing to market this film as a thriller made these instances all the more glaring.
Contrarians have chosen to cast this film as in favor of torture or against the use of torture or of ignoring torture but their fears are as baseless as they are needlessly sensational. This is not a film about condemning or condoning more, ahem, aggressive interrogation techniques, it is a film about characters that make use of them. If Kathryn Bigelow had ignored the issue of torture, a legitimate concern given Hollywood’s whitewashing tendencies, Zero Dark Thirty would have been a disgusting bit of tripe simply cashing in on the “Go America!” feeling following the reveal of Bin Laden’s death, and instead we get something more methodical and ambiguous, even if it chooses to forgo focusing on some of its heroine’s more negative character traits (what happens if she’s wrong?).
The big question I have heard regarding Zero Dark Thirty is typically in regards to its quality when compared with The Hurt Locker and which one of the two is the better. My opinion is that while it is a bit of an unfair comparison, Zero Dark Thirty is not as good as The Hurt Locker. Zero Dark Thirty is a film hamstrung by its very premise, though technically fantastic and anchored by the strong work of Jessica Chastain, this thriller lacks thrills and a real point aside from saying, yes, it finally happened, we got him, for the umpteenth time.