Zero Dark Thirty (2012) Directed by Kathryn Bigelow. Starring: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, and Joel Edgerton. IMDB says: “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.”
Zero Dark Thirty begins with September 11, 2001; the scene is a blank screen with the noises of the day, ones we’re all familiar with by now, from frantic calls to 9-1-1 or loved ones to reporters on breaking news broadcasts. To me it was not just where the story of the manhunt for Osama Bin Laden takes off, but a cinematic earworm that would stay with you throughout the film. It begs the question, is everything you’re about to see justified by that day? Not that this movie is strictly about what’s right and what’s wrong but more so about matter of factly showing you just how we managed to track down this man.
Following this introduction is a torture sequence of a suspected terrorist detainee, witnessed by CIA officer Maya (Jessica Chastain). At first she grimaces and seems disturbed but it’s not long into the movie before she’s adopted these tactics for the sake of information. She’s got a lead–a courier to bin Laden that seems quite important because no one can track him down and no detainees want to give up any details. The film takes you through the years leading up to bin Laden’s death at the hands of the infamous Navy SEALs team, with the common thread being Maya’s obsession with this lead despite no one else really taking it seriously.
Maya is the center of the film, and that’s really the only place it loses me. Her character is offputting, erratic, and a bit odd. You don’t really blame her colleagues for doubting her when she seems sort of like an awkward penguin in meetings and when yelling at superiors in hallways. Apparently this is actually a decent portrayal of the anonymous woman who really did follow that lead, but that doesn’t make me forgive that part of the film. Chastain is fine, but this isn’t my favorite role of hers by far. When you make someone the center of a film they should really pull you in and have great characterization. I never could connect with her because her personality seemed to constantly shift and so many others on screen were more interesting. She didn’t have to necessarily be likeable or more normal even, just someone more engaging.
Coming out of the theater my immediate thought about the film is that I wish it had received more of a Contagion-style story treatment. Yeah, Maya is based on a real woman who deserves credit, but if this film had incorporated other characters more heavily as they weave in and out of her story I would’ve probably considered ZD30 one of my favorite films this year.
Besides that character I found the subject matter to be fascinating and the pacing across the years was well done. It showed just enough insight into the political world that we were not necessarily privy to during the decade+ long manhunt. How realistic it is doesn’t necessarily impact me because I do see it as a dramatization and believe liberties have to be made. What it says about torture or bureaucracy isn’t the focus of the film either in my opinion. It lays these things down on the table and you can read it however you wish based on your own politics.
I found the direction by Kathryn Bigelow to be quite well done throughout and it was shot gorgeously. I loved looking at this film even if the script could make me wary at times or Maya was making me grit my teeth. The final sequence of the actual invasion of bin Laden’s compound was tense and airtight. It didn’t seem like Bigelow added any unrealistic elements to spruce up the action and I appreciated that.
This film is not going to be completely accurate or the official story of what went down between September 11, 2001 and May 1, 2011 but it was a realistic portrayal of how things may have occurred. The story is well plotted, direction was flawless (to me, it exceeds the movie itself if that makes any sense), score by Alexandre Desplat was perfectly fitting–it just could have used a better structure to getting this story across than through a lead you can’t connect with.
FTS SCORE: 83%
Zero Dark Thirty opens in theaters nationwide January 11th.