Jessica Chastain as Maya
Jason Clarke as Dan
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow
(Spoiler Warning: "Zero Dark Thirty" is about the hunt for Osama Bin Laden. Unless you've been living in a cave, you already know the results of that hunt, which are discussed in this review.)
There are many questions and just as many expectations about director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter/producer Mark Boal's follow-up to the Oscar-winning "The Hurt Locker," possibly too many to answer in a review without spoiling the experience. At its core, "Zero Dark Thirty" is a fairly clinical behind-the-scenes exploration of one of the more famous military actions of the past few years, presumably based on actual insider facts on the detective work done by the CIA leading up to the raid on the compound where Osama Bin Laden was found and killed after a nine-year search.
The film opens in complete silence and blackness before we hear a few minutes of radio calls from the 9/11 terrorist attack. Two years later, the search for the man who ordered the attack has brought Jessica Chastain's CIA operative Maya to Pakistan to go through all the intel about Bin Laden's associates. Her first experience is watching her burly colleague Dan (Jason Clarke) working over an informant using various torture techniques to try to find out what he knows.
This is 2003 and it will be seven long hard years of Maya diligently working the case and going through whatever information they can get from prisoners and informants along with a small group under the guidance of Kyle Chandler's supervisor in charge of the Pakistan ops. As much as he tries to accommodate all of Maya's requests, once word gets out about the torture techniques used to get information, he takes the fall, leaving her as the most senior agent on the mission.
We can take a guess how much we see on screen is based on the actual search by what we've learned over the years from news leaks and docs, even if much of the information would be classified. Bigelow and Boal take a similar approach as Paul Greengrass' "United 93" in terms of creating a movie that feels real every step of the way despite having known actors. In some ways, "Zero Dark Thirty" is even more episodic than "The Hurt Locker" with each segment delineated by a chapter title as time passes.
Despite there being an eclectic and talented ensemble cast, this really is Jessica Chastain's show, playing one of the few women within the male ranks of the CIA in Pakistan. Many of the characters in the movie aren't even given names with Maya often referred to as "the girl" whenever she's in the room. This contributes to one of the more interesting layers created by Boal and Bigelow to explore gender roles in the workplace. In that sense, Maya becomes interesting analogy for Bigelow's own quest for respect within the film industry, a woman driven to get answers and a resolution for eight years. By 2010, Maya's been transformed into such an unstoppable force, her superiors know better than to say "no" to her.
Every so often, the film leaves Maya to follow another operative on their side-mission like Jennifer Ehle or Edgar Ramirez, though it takes a long time before it feels like there are any real stakes for Maya or her colleagues with some of the more tense scenes inadvertently telegraphed because you're always expecting something to blow up or for gunfire to break out. Every once in a while you'll be right, as we relive a few key moments in recent history that seemed unnecessary (like the London bombings).
In fact, one of the more immediate problems with a film like "Zero Dark Thirty" is that it feels like a movie coming out too late, not in comparison to the actual killing of Bin Laden, but compared to the slew of other films that have covered similar ground since 9/11. Even if they take a different approach, there have literally been dozens of docs and dramas either about 9/11 or Afghanistan or Bin Laden or the soldiers and just about every aspect of the aftermaths of the terrorist attacks.
Either way, the film's look at the inner-workings of the CIA is fascinating and informative, particularly seeing the politics of the decision-making process and how funding and resources are allocated. Even things like seeing Dan having moved up the ranks at the CIA later in the film and being seated at the table with the big boys making the final decision on whether to attack the compound, showing how all Maya's hard work in the field is not getting her more respect or promotion.
The impressive array of actors really delivers on Boal's script as they come in and out of the story. Mark Strong gives another "is that really Mark Strong?" performance, while James Gandolfini shows up as the head of the CIA in a couple key moments, and less obvious choices like Mark Duplass and Chris Pratt bring some much needed levity in what's a grimly serious film otherwise.
As hard as it may be to create tension when you know the results beforehand, things start picking up after an hour both in terms of plot and emotion, though the movie everyone's been anticipating doesn't occur until nearly two hours into it, when we see the actual invasion on Bin Laden's compound by a team of Navy seals, led by Joel Edgerton. That invasion doesn't disappoint and in fact, it makes up for the slow pace of the first two hours as we watch this crack team performing a by-the-books invasion, making their way through the house before finding and killing Osama.
Because Mark Boal's screenplay is far more intricate and impressive than that of "The Hurt Locker," the movie is far more impressive for its writing and acting than its direction with Bigelow taking a far more no-frills approach to the filmmaking than some of her past efforts, but one wonders if it could have been edited down. Considering how long the movie is, one wonders how important some of the early stuff was. For instance, did we really need to be given a play-by-play of all the post-9/11 terrorist activity? One of the bigger technical disappointments is Alexandre Desplat's score, which is even more minimal than his other recent offerings, but when there is music, he seems to be using recycled melodies.
After the fantastic raid, we return to Maya who finally lets go now that her seemingly endless search is over, an ending that leaves a lasting impression. While it may be hard to justify all the time spent getting to that point, it's just as impossible to write off the time spent building to that climax, since it all contributes to that ending having such an impact.
The Bottom Line:
Not quite on par with "The Hurt Locker" in terms of intensity or entertainment value but still a highly competent albeit clinical procedural about one of the biggest manhunts of the 21st Century, "Zero Dark Thirty" eventually finds its footing to become a film with real weight.
Zero Dark Thirty
opens in New York and L.A. on Wednesday, December 19, and wide on January 11.