When I first heard that Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal, the director and writer/producer team behind The Hurt Locker, were getting together again to make a movie based on the hunting and killing of Osama bin Laden, I was right there with everyone who placed their anticipation and expectation of another fantastic and thrilling movie at the highest level. Of all the movies in 2012, this one was the one to look forward to the most.
I absolutely loved The Hurt Locker, with its raw intensity and in-your-face realism proving a thrilling counterpoint to a quiet character study. And I was beyond thrilled when I heard that Jessica Chastain, my favorite contemporary actress, was starring in the new movie, excited for a possible duplication of the director/writer/star power punch that made The Hurt Locker such an exceptional experience.
Sadly though, for me, Zero Dark Thirty doesn’t come close to The Hurt Locker and is even further from being the best film of the year. That’s not to say Zero Dark Thirty isn’t a movie to be respected, it’s just not a movie I could ever love.
Zero Dark Thirty is about a CIA analyst who spends years tracking down Osama bin Laden. The CIA may be glamorized a lot in our minds eye, but when it comes down to it, what the CIA really does is watch and listen. They watch and listen and then analyze what they have seen and heard. Then this analysis gets turned into a report and that report get talked about and, sometimes, acted on. Not exactly James Bond. The inherent challenge with Zero Dark Thirty is this painstaking process itself and how best to dramatize a story that achieves every major plot point from behind a desk. International manhunts, we learn, are slow to evolve, and require weeks, months, even years of patient sifting through leads, running down tips and following hunches. How do you turn methodology into a movie?
Luckily, for Boal and Bigelow, the ace in their hole was the big ending. Like Titanic, where we all put up with the cheesy acting and cornball dialogue just to watch the ship sink, there wasn’t a lot that could be done here to slow my anticipation of watching the dramatic re-enactment of SEAL Team 6’s killing and capturing of the most wanted terrorist in history. But, like Titanic, once it was all said and done, no matter how well done or impressive the finale was, Zero Dark Thirty still left me cold. While I appreciated the technique, the resistance to dumb anything down for the audience and the singular focus, the lack of any emotional connection prevented me from caring in the least. Writer Boal has a journalistic background and he knows his material, but what he doesn’t know too much about is crafting a story with even the slightest humanistic touch. Even The Hurt Locker, a movie I love, had the personality and warmth of a dumbbell, but what saved it was the compelling and focused character story it told. Zero Dark Thirty benefits from no such examination, it’s just a procedural drama told in monotone.
As for all the talk of torture featured in the movie, I was left feeling that it was there more to beef up the drama than to serve the story. The film itself remains morally ambiguous to the torture, leaving the viewer to make up its own mind. While I applaud any film that encourages discussion and thought about moral and ethical issues, I wish there had been more of an emotional payoff that served the story—I don’t really want to watch torture just so I can decide for myself whether I agree with it.
But perhaps the biggest disappointment of all for me was the total waste of Jessica Chastain. Jeremy Renner shot to stardom after The Hurt Locker, but, again, that movie was about a character. Zero Dark Thirty offers up a lead character that we know nothing about, and even if that is intentional at the start, how can you really go the entire movie without the slightest glimpse into who this person is, other than being good at her job. The character Chastain plays in Zero Dark Thirty, a driven CIA analyst named Maya, reminded me a lot of Clarice Starling, the driven FBI trainee played by Jodie Foster in Silence of the Lambs. Both are smart, strong and dedicated professionals who are committed to a task, but the difference is we end up really learning who Clarice Starling is as a human being. Chastain is given no such help by Boal’s screenplay, or by Bigelow’s aloof and clinical direction as her character ends up being as much of a mystery as the details of the raid on bin Laden’s compound. Chastain makes the most of what she’s got to work with here, but there is just too little of any substance. You can’t waste this kind of talent with faraway stares and anguished expressions. I’m telling you now, if she wins the Oscar for Best Actress, it will be for her seven powerhouse performances last year that weren’t recognized, not for this one that shouldn’t be.
In the end, Zero Dark Thirty is a brisk exploration of dedication, red tape and military might. The action sequences that close the movie are worth the price of admission, as the final raid is compelling and absolutely riveting—the kind of stuff Bigelow is best at—but the rest of the movie is far too clinical for me. I like my movies to speak to me, not at me. This was a fascinating story to have been told, I wish there had been a more fascinating way to tell it.