For all the talk of torture, accuracy, and gut-wrenching portrayal, little has been said about what specifically intrigues the world about the already highly-praised Zero Dark Thirty. Could it be it’s arm’s length approach to a realistic event? Perhaps it’s the woman in the lead who seems to have a beat on Osama Bin Laden’s whereabouts from the very beginning. Maybe Zero Dark Thirty makes us feel at once strong and vulnerable without pulling too hard on the heartstrings. Whatever it is, Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty is an icy procedural that’s distant and observational to a fault. As both its greatest asset and its biggest drawback, the film eagerly avoids any semblance of manipulation in its retelling of the events leading up to one of the biggest takedowns in military history.
In some ways, one might see Zero Dark Thirty as three separate stories all connected to the inevitable climax. The first, the most interesting, and most talked about, presents the desperation with which American intelligence brutally tortured detainees in the direct aftermath of 9/11. What’s compelling about this portion is the animalistic helplessness of American operatives whose wounds of being attacked are so fresh that life maintains little value. Also, the smart introduction of Jessica Chastain’s Maya – done as cutaways to her shocked reactions to the torture – might implicate her as “soft.” Yet, when faced with the pleas of pained detainee, her stern, “If you tell the truth, it might stop,” finally tells of a woman just as hardened as the men. This revelation propels us into the meat of the film, where Maya will become central to Bin Laden’s capture.
The second story follows Maya’s lead – Bin Laden’s courier – all the way up to the takedown of her target. The “Manhunt” of the tagline happens inside confidential locations, hotel lobbies, CIA headquarters, and makeshift offices. The passing time that Maya starts to count with frustrated urgency could be said to have started from the moment she discovers a lead that virtually no one else finds interesting. In this section, Chastain rules virtually every frame, yet strikingly little is ever known about who she is or what actually drives her. The lack of motivation gets replaced by surprise bombings, momentary suspense, and the conviction of a lead character compelled only by getting rid of the FBI’s most wanted. The chilliness that worked so well in The Hurt Locker because those characters are hollowed out and inspired only by diffused bombs, doesn’t entirely add up in Zero Dark Thirty. Similarly, the tension that comes from a bomb exploding at any moment is quite the same throughout this new film, only here the shock value doesn’t carry nearly as much weight.
An explosion of suspenseful storytelling, gunshots, night vision goggles, and sharp editing, the final story shows the actual takedown of Bin Laden with precision and grace. The last portion of the film gives us what Bigelow has built her career on: tension draped in character that pushes genre tropes. By far the most affecting portion, this section also develops an honest personality between the Navy Seals in just a few minutes, something that escapes the other characters during the entire running time. Could we see the brotherhood of the Seals as a counterpoint to the isolation of Maya’s stuffy CIA operative? Unfortunately, the film exists primarily for the effect of its skillful presentation, so I’m inclined to think the Seals were drawn that way because it “felt right.” Zero Dark Thirty earns its stripes with the effective Bin Laden takedown and I’d argue it’s this portion that has most people enamored by the film as a whole.
Zero Dark Thirty so desperately wants not to be a Hollywood cliché that it leaves you with a feeling that you’ve consumed a hearty meal that was missing the soul of home-cooking. It’s straight-forward and unflinching, thus eliciting appreciation from those looking to commend a non-manipulative portrayal of American Exceptionalism. However, without any understanding of the protagonist or what makes her tick, or strangely few convincing obstacles in her decade long path to following her lead, the film never feels like more than a well-built lecture. There’s some great cinema in here (especially in the final act), but there isn’t a whole lot of poignant storytelling. [B-]