In my opinion, Kathryn Bigelow’s last film didn’t deserve the praise and accolades that it was given. She didn’t deserve the Best Director Oscar and ‘The Hurt Locker‘ certainly didn’t deserve to win Best Picture. The movie was a dry and clichéd husk of the same military movie that we’ve seen time and time again. Because Bigelow is so overly hyped (need I remind you of ‘Point Break’, ‘Strange Days’ or ‘K-19’?), I haven’t cared at all about the shrouded secrecy and mystique around her latest flick, ‘Zero Dark Thirty’. All I expected was another run-of-the-mill genre movie capitalizing on the sensationalized assassination of Osama bin Laden. Boy, was I wrong.
I expected ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ to tell the story of how we “got” bin Laden in a highly opinionated manner. When an already-controversial movie sways too far to either side, I lose interest. I don’t need to be blatantly hammered over the head in order to understand the moral point that filmmakers are trying to drive home. Luckily, ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ does none of this. It’s 100% neutral. Should America have shelled out the trillions of dollars and countless human lives into finding the man behind the 9/11 attacks? That’s not the purpose of this film.
‘Zero Dark Thirty’ is an unbiased portrayal of how the CIA came to find Osama bin Laden and how the raid that ultimately took his life was executed. The first two thirds of the film are all about the CIA operative, played brilliantly by Jessica Chastain, who found a fool-proof way to locate Public Enemy Number One. Discovering the identity of this lead was a feat of its own, not to mention a hard initiative to get Agency high-ups to approve. The final third of the film takes its time showing how the military operation went down. If you enjoy studying the modern tactics of the U.S. military (much like ‘Black Hawk Down‘), you’ll really appreciate the final act. Despite knowing how the story ends, ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ generates more tension than most thrillers. Instead of rushing through this historical event like an action flick, it deliberately moves at a slow pace, creating a nearly unbearable amount of intensity.
My complaints with the film are minimal. We are literally only given two bits of back story about Chastain’s character. For reasons unknown, she was recruited right out of high school, and she is not married. That’s it. Her character’s drive is evident and unquestionable, but it would have been nice to learn more about what makes her tick, especially for one crucial scene. My only other beef lies in the cadence of the film. Throughout the entire movie, there are little injections of wartime violence – suicide bombing, shoot-outs, etc. At least two of them feel contrived and pointless, not changing a single thing about the narrative at hand. Both come completely unexpectedly, are intense for the minute that they’re on-screen, and end without consequences. They’re basically filler. Time easily could have been shaved off this 157-minute film.
Even with my complaints, I’m still a fan of ‘Zero Dark Thirty’. Much like fellow Oscar contender ‘Lincoln’, you may not want to revisit ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ over and over again, but there’s no denying that it’s a solid film that portrays an important part of American history. When it arrives at a theater near you (which probably won’t be until the first weekend of 2013 for most parts of the country) do yourself a favor and see this intriguing and thought-provoking film.
[Ed.: ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ opens in New York and Los Angeles today, and will expand wide on January 11th. -JZ]