review: zero dark thirty

By Chris Robinson on 1/12/2012

By any standard, the hunt for Osama bin Laden is one of the most incredible true-life stories of all time. An obscenely wealthy Saudi oil magnate drinks too deeply from one of mankind’s oldest, most mystical religions, fanatically declares an eternal holy war on the world’s greatest superpower, then retreats to one of the planet’s most remote, primitive wildernesses to hatch his master plan: attack the world’s greatest city head on – topple her monuments, murder her citizens, and destroy her peace.  The ensuing decade-long man-hunt spanned five continents, cost billions of dollars, and ended the only way it really could: in the dead of night, with U.S. Special Forces putting a bullet through his head.

ZeroDarkThirty__121203202757Synopsis – A chronicle of the decade-long hunt for al-Qaeda terrorist leader Osama bin Laden after the September 2001 attacks, and his death at the hands of the Navy S.E.A.L. Team 6 in May, 2011.  Trailer

Details: starring Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Joel Edgerton, and Kyle Chandler

Rating/Runtime: R/157 min.

Dingo Dictum: B+


I, like most Americans, will always remember where I was on September 11, 2001, when I heard about the attack on New York. I will also forever recall where I was the evening of May 2, 2011, when I first heard that bin Laden had been killed – and I will not soon forget the feelings of relief, consolation, and even joy, that accompanied that news.

Director Kathryn Bigelow would seem to have earned the right to be the one to tell this story. Her 2008 masterpiece The Hurt Locker, a deeply insightful and hugely gripping expose on the war in Iraq, showcased a unique ability to fully grasp and compellingly convey all the complexities, contradictions, and dangers of modern warfare, and especially the war on terror. Indeed, all the ingredients that made The Hurt Locker so good are once again on display: the scrupulously researched attention to detail, the deliberate, plodding place, the nail-biting suspense. Quiet character study is subtly blended with tense action, and mushy hero making never gets in the way of accurate, lifelike portrayal.

But unlike The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty occasionally seems to get in its own way. Strangely, none of bin Laden’s back-story (as mentioned above) is included in the film. The movie barely even addresses the 9/11 tragedy: all we get is audio on a black screen (mostly 9-1-1 calls from trapped workers in the Twin Towers).  The audience is not shown a single image. The first thing we get to see is actually the inside of a CIA interrogation cell, where agents repeatedly torture a bloody, soiled prisoner. He is stripped naked, water boarded, and paraded around on a dog collar before we finally get to move on to the next scene (fair warning to the faint of heart). In fact, Bigelow’s preoccupation with torture tactics dominates much of the film (especially the early stages), in what feels like a long, rather gauche political statement.

Female lead Jessica Chastain is fabulous as Maya: a cold, ruthless, work-obsessed career agent hell-bent on finding and killing evil Muslims. But her one-dimensionality makes her a less than fascinating candidate for character study. Which is unfortunately what the middle of the film, as it becomes more and more bogged down with bureaucratic details, spends most of its time on.

I also found the depiction of SEAL Team 6 to be somewhat problematic (they come across as little more than beefy jocks). But the biggest disappointment for me was that I never felt anything close to the emotional payoff I so vividly remember experiencing when I first heard of bin Laden’s demise. The climax of the story – our guys nabbing Osama – feels glossed over; we don’t even get to see bin Laden’s face, except for a brief glimpse or two through the lens of a small camera. Surely such an exultant success story deserves to be related with a little more exultation!

Unlike our convoluted, morally ambiguous liberation of Iraq, the goal of this mission was always clear: kill the culprit. There were no citizens to save, governments to restructure, or WMD. Such a clear, straightforward purpose, it would seem, called for a clear, straightforward film.

Make no mistake: this is a good film. Well written, well acted, well researched, and well shot.  It has already been nominated for Best Picture. But a great film? No. And this story deserved a great film.  Δ


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