There is no question at this point that Kathryn Bigelow is a masterful director. She has already hit the best director/best picture combo at the Academy Awards once for The Hurt Locker, and if the other 2012 film awards that have been coming out thus far give any indicator, it is likely she will repeat that performance again with Zero Dark Thirty. The question isn’t so much whether the film is good, but if it lives up to the hype.
Zero Dark Thirty charts the US government’s decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden. The film’s name is derived from the military code for the time at which the assault on bin Laden occurred. For the most part, the story is told from the perspective of a character we know as “Maya,” a CIA operative. It is amazing to think that she is based upon a real person, but also no surprise that her character been slightly altered for that woman’s protection. The film is led by Jessica Chastain in this role, crushing another performance (and very possibly earning herself an Oscar in the process), while creating a military film that isn’t just another boys’ club story. Her character’s self-sacrifice for the sake of her goal is the driving backbone of the story, and certainly the most engaging part. Sure, there is some great supporting work from actors like Jason Clarke and Mark Strong, and a nice little performance by Mark Duplass, but this really is Chastain’s show. The film contrasts with public perception: in this version, while SEAL Team 6 had an important role, it is very likely Osama bin Laden would not have been caught if it wasn’t for Maya’s tireless work.
The story is unflinching, from the minutes of darkness at the beginning while the 9/11 attacks are presented through a montage of sound, to the grim (but surprisingly neutral) conflict over the use of torture as a mechanism for extracting information, to the depiction of the danger of living and working in Pakistan. One of the most impressive things is the painstakingly thorough details that Bigelow (and screenwriter Mark Boal) have put together. There is also very little question about the nuance of the movie. The story is certainly going to leave people with an emotional toll to pay.
Cinematically, the movie presents an unusual spin on the classic vision of the CIA, eschewing the glamour of the spy and instead presenting Maya as a grinding analyst who is forced to make beanstalks out of beans. Bigelow’s approach is not only gritty, but it really presents a clear picture of the complexity it took to capture one of the most notorious fugitives in the history of the world. In particular, the climax with SEAL Team 6 displays Bigelow’s and Boal’s experience with the military, presenting what feels like one of the most realistic experiences of what a stealth operation like that would feel like.
As impressive as the film is, that isn’t to say it is without issues (though these are all on a relative scale). Ironically, a lot of the positives contribute to the negatives. Firstly, because of the expansive detail of the story, the pacing is a bit slow at times. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it felt like it sometimes diffused the tension that was building. On a similar note, in contrast to a film like The Hurt Locker, where the viewer frequently had no idea what was going to happen, there are just a few moments of surprise. But these “dramatic” moments felt a bit choreographed; you could see them coming. It is a bit easier to read where the film is going, but it lends itself to being a more cohesive final product, one that is less dependent upon shock value. You wouldn’t necessarily expect, though, that a film about espionage ends up being fairly straightforward.
For me, the biggest issue is the climax of the movie, the assault on Osama bin Laden, because the film is fundamentally structured like a prequel—you now where it is going. It is incredible to learn all sorts of details about the assault itself, but it isn’t really that climactic, honestly. And while the event does provide a huge sense of validation for Maya’s quest, it mostly just maintains the status quo of the build-up to it. I’ve heard people saying you can’t blink during the last 30 minutes of the film, and I found that to be a bit of an exaggeration. Films like The Kingdom I found to be more in line with that assertion, since the tension continues to build as the danger increases—that never really feels like an issue here.
Kathryn Bigelow is going to score big with Zero Dark Thirty; it is an impressive piece of filmmaking. What is set under the guise of being about the hunt for Osama bin Laden ends up being much more of a character study of the individuals involved. While it technically is a war movie, it feels more like a game of cat and mouse, such as something like The Hunt for Red October. It defies everything you would expect a film like this to be, and yet it doesn’t quite materialize as the slam dunk I heard it was. I think if there wasn’t so much hype I would’ve enjoyed it more.
Final Grade: A-