- Rated R
All photos © Columbia Pictures
Reviewed by David Medsker
ero Dark Thirty” can’t win for losing. In making a film about the hunt for 9/11 mastermind and financier Osama bin Laden, director Kathryn Bigelow tries to keep it as real as possible, but the truth lets her down at times. Anyone who’s read Mark Bowden’s piece in Vanity Fair about the raid on bin Laden’s compound knows that the raid itself was more hammer vs. nail than good vs. evil. When the big moment finally arrives at the end of Bigelow’s 157-minute film (!), it’s kind of like watching a horror movie from the killer’s perspective; the Navy SEAL team wiped the floor with what little resistance they encountered. It’s a giant moment in U.S. history, and yet watching it unfold is shockingly anticlimactic.
That isn’t the only thing that gets “Zero Dark Thirty” into trouble. Screenwriter Mark Boal uses as many actual events as possible to drive the timeline of terror, so to speak, but along the way there are a few sprinkles of Hollywood pixie dust that ring hollow, and the end result is that the real stuff seems too stiff, and the fake stuff doesn’t seem real enough. Again, can’t win for losing.
And yet, there is a lot to like about the movie as well. Bigelow coaxes some ace performances from her cast – Jason Clarke delivers a star turn as the benevolent torturer Dan – and it’s shot with the same cool confidence that she used to perfection in her previous film “The Hurt Locker.” The problem is that her story this time around doesn’t have the built-in tension that she had working in her favor the last time. “The Hurt Locker” was a series of sprints, while “Zero Dark Thirty” is a marathon. Running a marathon is a grueling test of endurance; watching a film should never feel that way.
The movie begins with a chilling sequence where we hear a series of phone calls that were made during the events of 9/11, to a black backdrop (because really, the voices convey the horror just fine by themselves). Soon after, CIA field agent Maya (Jessica Chastain) requests a transfer to the Middle East in order to find Osama bin Laden. Fellow agent Dan (Clarke) is quite helpful in acquiring intel from certain persons of interest courtesy of his, um, aggressive interrogation techniques, and one of his captors eventually gives up a name that Maya believes can lead them to their target. Unfortunately, Maya continues to be thwarted by both the locals reluctant to cooperate with her, and her own management. As the years drag on with no progress, they catch a lucky break, and Maya’s team begins to hone in on their man.
Bigelow doesn’t shy away from showing the inhumane techniques that the CIA used in order to get results, nor does she apologize on their behalf; like it or not, the CIA wouldn’t do those things if they didn’t work. Bigelow does, though, manage to humanize them while it’s happening. Dan is a no-nonsense interrogator, but he’s not a sadistic thug; outside of the rooms where they hold their captors, he’s like a less goofy Seth Rogen. This might anger some people, but it feels authentic; these people have a job to do, and sometimes it involves getting your hands dirty. Props to Bigelow for acknowledging up front that this is war, and that nice guys rarely finish first.
If only she had kept a closer eye on her movie’s runtime. There is a certain logic in giving your film about a 10-year manhunt a slightly longer runtime for symbolic reasons alone, but once the aforementioned anticlimactic raid finally arrives, it hardly seems worth the time spent getting to it (though showing the events without a musical score was a nice touch). There are also two roadblocks inserted into the plot that are clearly meant to do nothing but trip Maya and her team, and neither of them rings true. From the moment those scenes begin, you know exactly how they’re going to end. Worse, they don’t really bring anything to the story. Cut this movie to two hours and change – which is not an unrealistic request – and they would have something special. As it is, it’s overlong, and not as intense as it should be.
Who knows, maybe that was Bigelow’s point, to portray the true banality of war by showing at length the struggles her heroine suffers in order to achieve her goal. But do you really want to show an audience the banality of anything? There are lots of things to admire about “Zero Dark Thirty,” but there is little to love, and even less to connect with on an emotional level. This movie, of all movies, should have been the opposite of that.