As kindling for debate about the war on terror, torture and America, director Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty” was a success before it debuted.
As an exercise in storytelling, it’s a tedious, tiring and confused look at the search for terror mastermind Osama bin Laden, as seen through the dogged effort of CIA operative Maya (the Oscar-nominated Jessica Chastain).
In some respects, that’s because the film is supposed to be about Maya and how she confronts her firsthand realities of detainees and waterboarding, higher-ups and the flawed mechanics of government intelligence, as well as the basic morality of hunting down a mass murderer by almost any means necessary.
But that’s not what “Zero Dark Thirty” is, exactly. While Chastain’s Maya is unquestionably the emotional core of the film, Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal (“The Hurt Locker”) seem to saturate the story, not with every single name and lead followed, but with plodding scenes to establish the mood of the story, likely a tactic to lend authenticity and a sense of truth to a story where many of the details will remain state secrets for years.
Superfluous scenes of embassy checkpoints and daily life across the Middle East bog the film down. While it’d be impossible to ignore the reality of U.S. officials in Pakistan facing tight security and a seemingly omnipresent threat from terrorists, the film slows down and loses focus due to their prevalence.
When you consider the film opens on audio of radio, phone and broadcast accounts of the Sept. 11 attacks against a black screen, you really don’t need to do much else to establish mood. Contrast that restrained approach to violence to the myriad scenes of violence against non-white, non-Americans throughout “Zero Dark Thirty”: Scenes of torture at CIA black sites; the 2004 terror attack in Khobar, Saudi Arabia; and the eventual raid of the bin Laden compound in Pakistan.
Is it about airing America’s dirty laundry? Based on how the film’s many CIA and assorted Beltway insiders carry themselves in the process of talking about or conducting torture, I doubt it. If there’s an argument for what Dick Cheney labeled “enhanced interrogation methods,” “Zero Dark Thirty” seems to quietly embrace it without suggesting the reasons – ultimately, the viewer is left to decide if the means are justified already knowing the ends.
It is, however, interesting to watch Chastain transform her character. In early scenes she watches in uncomfortable silence while seasoned interrogator Dan (Jason Clarke) goes through the motions in extracting the data he needs from the detained Ammar (Red Kateb).
“This is what defeat looks like,” Dan tells Ammar as he’s restrained but not yet ready to talk. “I respect that you’re strong … but in the end everybody breaks, bro. It’s biology.”
Maya’s hesitance gives way as the search for bin Laden drags on. More attacks occur (most notably the 2005 London bombings), lives are lost and the political landscape changes – the longer they take to catch bin Laden, the more likely their methods come under scrutiny, whether it’s from within the CIA or a congressional subcommittee.
If “Zero Dark Thirty” does one thing well, it’s making this complex, global, multi-agency effort to track down a terrorist relatable on a personal level, mostly thanks to Chastain’s work at Maya. The shock and denial she’s able to convey as surefire leads seem to dry up evolves into hubris when the trail of bin Laden’s courier heats up again. Having been berated by a superior to “bring me people to kill,” it’s as good of a payoff as any throughout the film when Maya brashly puts her reputation on the line when finally meeting the CIA director (James Gandolfini) with news of bin Laden’s whereabouts.
But too often, the film moves at a tortoise’s pace and feels directionless. While there’s about two hours of solid story about this one woman’s devotion to her cause, the rest is a tiresome procedural mess.
Will it get you talking? Absolutely. While I can’t even pinpoint the exact message Bigelow and Boal are trying to send with “Zero Dark Thirty,” it’s an inherently political film. For all the talk that circulated about this film possibly being a boon for President Obama had it been released before the 2012 election, the commander-in-chief actually looks naïve with his idealistic stance against torture, as seen from his “60 Minutes” interview playing on a TV set in a CIA office.
The issues at play here are worthy of a lot more debate, and I’m sure it’ll come as most of the nation gets its first look at this film. But those issues are worthy of a clearer exploration than what’s presented in “Zero Dark Thirty.”
“Zero Dark Thirty” is rated R. Two hours, 36 minutes. Three stars out of four.