“Zero Dark Thirty” may be the best unentertaining movie I’ve seen this year. This is Kathryn Bigelow’s second film based on the war on terror, and it is just as much of an imperfect as it is an interesting take on the past decade as “The Hurt Locker,” and has roughly the same type of main character in it. “Zero” is very easy to follow, comes off impeccably well-researched and has a terrific performance sure to get some award consideration from Jessica Chastain (“The Help”).
So, why “unentertaining”? Bigelow launches the story with black screen, the voices from 9/11 of those trapped in the towers and on Flight 93 echoing in the background. CIA operatives Dan (Jason Clarke) and Maya (Chastain) take us through the timeline of events between 2003 and Bin Laden’s murder in May of 2011. Scenes of torture will undoubtedly make you wince and wonder whether they are relevant to the film (enter the waterboarding and various other types of degradation—cue Obama’s pledge in 2008 that “we do not torture”). These sessions eventually yield the name of Bin Laden’s courier, leading Maya and her team to track him down while avoiding another attack.
The actual finding of this courier is deliberately paced, filmed like a stake-out where most of the time we’re just waiting for the constant surveillance and deal-making to pan out. These are scenes that produce antsiness as well as a certain amount of tedium, perfect for getting us right into these characters’ frame of mind. Chastain’s Maya is solitary and emotionally sealed off, but her progression from choir girl to blood-hound is marking. And Clarke’s turn as the intimidating and cruel Dan, the one delivering the torture bits, is just as interesting. You could do a whole movie alone about how a professional sadist like him comes back home one day and tries to live a normal life. Just this movie does not do that, probably because if any of these people showed a modicum of emotion, every one else would probably look upon that person as some evolved alien life form.
The last half hour where we finally get to the house in Pakistan where Bin Laden is holed up contains the film’s best stuff. The weighing of probabilities, the little tid-bits of unbelievable info like the proximity of the house to the Pakistani West Point, and the gigantic mess this may be if it turns out that their hunch is wrong. The actual raid itself is filmed in the dark, usually through night vision and comes off as suspenseful and gripping, but don’t start chanting “USA, USA” just yet. The outcome is just as much a mixed bag of winners and victims as the past decade has been and there’s more of an atmosphere of “what now?” than anything else.
“Zero” is anti-glamour, anti-hero, and anti-pretty little red bow at the end. There is so much to chew on in this story but although I can’t possibly say “Zero” was enjoyable, I have infinite respect for the way Bigelow and scribe Mark Boal have chosen to tell it.
Kathryn Bigelow tangles with Congress (August 16, 2011)