Zero Dark Thirty
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Starring: Jessica Chastian, James Gandolfini
Zero Dark Thirty was originally supposed to be a movie about the search for Osama Bin Laden—however, its content was dramatically changed when Bin Laden was actually found and killed. This could potentially explain why Kathryn Bigelow’s second Middle East war film feels as lengthy and ineffective as waterboarding.
Spanning 10 years and jumping around the globe, the story largely follows Maya’s (Jessica Chastain) experience of trying to find Bin Laden.
Maya is essentially the only character in the film and unfortunately lacks depth. Chastain is a stellar actress but isn’t given nearly as much to work with when she has to shuffle between either grim determination or with momentary pauses where she considers what her work has her doing.
Unlike Bigelow’s Best Picture winner The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty feels detached from its one semi-developed character. Why Maya seems almost obsessively devoted to finding Bin Laden is never explored and the few moments of her seeming self-doubt or existential crisis are too infrequent and not nearly powerful enough. The strength of films like Apocalypse Now, Platoon and The Deer Hunter was the connection to the protagonists’ experience of war—a fact that writer Mark Boal seems to have forgotten here.
The story of how Bin Laden was found is undoubtedly an interesting one and given a more focused plotline or better characterization it could be a great film. Zero Dark Thirty offers nothing in those fields—it’s an hour of torture sequences, followed by board meetings with people whose jobs are not explained, and concludes with the half-hour final assault on Bin Laden’s suspected hiding place.
The climatic military confrontation is well-shot and creates a strong realistic tone. Unfortunately, this scene is undercut by the fact that the soldiers involved are introduced within 15 minutes of the attack occurring and Maya’s reactions to what is happening are not shown once the soldiers land. The scene is ultimately overpowered by the fact that there is no emotional resonance with any of the characters and knowing how the scene will end drops any tension into the ocean.
There are a few other sequences that are poorly constructed—one terrorist attack is so heavily built up that the inevitable explosion is not surprising, another is so quickly passed over that it doesn’t register on any scale.
Zero Dark Thirty will likely be a contender for Oscar season but it really isn’t worth all the attention it is getting. In a way, Bigelow’s film functions as a good metaphor for the killing of Bin Laden in real life—his death was a figurative victory for the United States that doesn’t resolve the larger problems the U.S. is facing. So too, Zero Dark Thirty is a film about the killing of Bin Laden but it is devoid of any soul or larger meaning.