Kathryn Bigelow’s new movie is a straight-laced depiction of the events up to and including the killing of Osama bin Laden. It starts with frantic, real life 9-1-1 phone calls from inside the twin towers on that doomed morning and ends with a dead bin Laden. It’s the beginning and end we all know regardless of this movie. Zero Dark Thirty, however, concerns itself mostly with the ten years in between the two: the operations, the agencies involved, the bureaucratic hurdles, and the ridiculous amount of planning based on the best-guess scenario that Osama was in that compound one mile from Pakistan’s version of West Point.
It was smart to start with a reminder of the suffering innocents from within the World Trade Center that morning – even if done as voice-over – since Zero Dark Thirty does not pull its punches from that point onward. In the first minutes following these calls, and two years after 9/11, we are immediately subjected to scenes of enhanced interrogation techniques and behavior meant to dehumanize and “break” the captive. This is when we first get to meet Maya (Jessica Chastain), the titular character of Zero Dark Thirty and fictional counterpart to the real-life CIA Agent who made finding bin Laden her sole focus (in real life, the agent believed bin Laden’s couriers were the ticket to Osama himself).
From there, Zero Dark Thirty spans approximately an additional eight years (from 2004 to the night Osama Bin Laden was killed) punctuated with random acts of terrorism compounded by dead ends. Narratively, however, the movie is anchored with one immutable arc: Maya’s obsession with bringing bin Laden to justice based on her aforementioned resolve respecting his couriers. She knows she’s 100% right even if everyone else is somewhere between 40 and 60%.
That said, this is Chastain’s movie. She is in nearly every scene, and the hunt is framed from her analytical perspective and ferociousness (she is described as a “killer from Washington” early-on and in one of my favorite moments belittles the group of Navy Seals responsible for raiding Osama’s compound in Pakistan. (“I didn’t even want to use you guys. With your dip, and Velcro, and gear bullsh*t. I wanted to drop a bomb.”) The problem is, the character isn’t interesting enough to keep the movie from plateauing like a diabetic in need of some glucose. Even the raid – THE RAID for Pete’s sake – was kind of long and dry. This may be my fault, though. It’s possible I am so used to the kinds of movies that pump out climactic end battles that center around massive shoot-outs and last-minute heroics that when I see a version toned-down from that, my Pavlovian response is one of disapproval. I guess I just wanted Osama to die while firing a gun and not by stupidly peering around the corner. More to the point, the reality is that’s how he died, so I should tread more carefully. But, the filmmakers took liberties with the facts such as they were. Can’t you give Osama a bazooka and a bomb vest? Okay, now I know I’m being unreasonable.
I imagine it took a lot to get this movie made. It’s a massive endeavor no doubt. The acting is fantastic (there are several notable actors but their roles are mostly cameos at best [e.g. James Gandolfini (playing Leon Panetta, I think)], the production details are impressive, but, for the life of me, I don’t understand why this movie is getting the praise it is. I was bored through most of it and thought no one could make “the hunt for Osama Bin Laden” dull and bland. Of course, I also thought The Hurt Locker was equally as boring – and was seemingly alone in wondering how it won an Academy Award for Best Picture – and found myself, like then, longing for the days Bigelow was making Point Break.
That said, here’s what I took away from Zero Dark Thirty: 1. If I had to be a CIA Agent – with a concentration in anti-terrorism – I would probably quit on the first day after seeing the kinds of names I would need to know (it seems every one in the Arab world is named “Abu Al Jazeera Al Gore Khamed” or something close. F that.), and 2. Filmmakers these days, I think, are becoming overly-indulgent. Very few movies should exceed two hours. Even fewer should exceed two and a half. Zero Dark Thirty should have been a crisp hour and forty minutes – not two hours and forty minutes. I realize the hunt for Osama bin Laden took over ten years, with several leads all over the world, but that’s why we have movies: to condense long and complicated periods of history into a watchable form.
Or maybe I’m just too hard to please.