- Movie Rating -

Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

| January 14, 2013 | 0 Comments

A century from now, the hunt and assassination of Osama bin Laden may ultimately prove to be the most studied and celebrated event of this decade.  The man responsible for so much evil in the world perished more or less the way Americans wanted him to, dragged out of bed in the middle of the night and killed by a Navy S.E.A.L. Team who showed him no mercy.  No fuss.  No muss.  No soldiers were harmed in the killing of this terrorist.  John Wayne couldn’t have done it better.

The details of the mission to assassinate bin Laden are fascinating, not least because it went off without a major incident, save for an experimental helicopter that never made it home.  Those details make up the best parts of Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty which tries to be a thriller despite the fact that we know how it ends.  She stages the assault on bin Laden’s compound with technical skill and it makes for some great cinema.  Those scenes occupy the last thirty minutes of the movie, but the preceding story of how the government got their information is not as compelling.

That story, which makes up about 80% of the film is a long haul, taking place over 8 years and following the dogged trail of a CIA agent named Maya (Jessica Chastain) who has spent the bulk of her career trying to find the al Qaeda leader, tracking down leads and standing by as suspects were beaten and given the water torture.  Always acting on a hunch, she follows cell phone signals and fragments of information that lead her to the next contact.

The portrait of Maya is not very compelling.  Jessica Chastain is a wonder as an actress – look her up sometime as the angelic mother in The Tree of Life or as the ditzy housewife in The Help or as the voice of reason to a mentally ill husband in the brilliant, little-seen Take Shelter.  Yet, here she isn’t given anything to work with.  Maya never comes off as much of a character.  Her whole life is dedicated to finding bin Laden but there isn’t a person there, only a job.  Chastain was recently nominated for an Oscar for Best Actress and won the Golden Globe, but you can’t help feeling that this is a performance that any actress could have given.  There really isn’t anything special here.

The problem with the story is that the journey getting to bin Laden is not very interesting.  The contacts all look more or less the same.  They have names that you can’t remember and faces that, after a while, all look alike.  Some suspects are hauled in and tortured while a few others simply blow themselves up.  The investigation itself doesn’t have any energy or urgency.  We know that this man is evil to the core and must be stopped but the story moves at an achingly slow pace as Maya stares at photographs and computer screens, then sits in meetings where government officials lay the blame at her door that bin Laden hasn’t been found yet.  After a while this becomes routine, not to mention dull.

The reward for sitting through the muddy plot is a final scene at the house in Abbottabad, which Bigelow and her technical team pull off with energy and skill.  As drama it works perfectly.  As action it isn’t flashy or overwrought.  In a briefing we know how many people are present and are shown a layout of the compound so we have an orientation of where everyone is on the grounds.  We follow close behind the team as they move from room to room, floor to floor.  Is the next man they encounter carrying a gun?  Is he strapped to a bomb?  Finally the moment of truth arrives and Bigelow resists the temptation to celebrate it visually.  We barely see bin Laden, but we know it is him and there is a sense of relief when he is finally put down.

Those scenes will stay with you; the rest of Zero Dark Thirty is easily forgotten.  Kathryn Bigelow, who made the Best Picture winner The Hurt Locker three years ago, about a member of the bomb disposal unit who becomes addicted to his job, made that film about a specific person.  This film is about the murder of a man whose death could light the fuse of revenge for years to come.  Maybe the story should have focused on that angle instead.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.