Zero Dark Thirty - **1/2
Directed by: Kathryn Bigelow
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Jennifer Ehle, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Joel Edgerton
Review: By conventional math it took nearly 10 years to catch Osama Bin Laden. By the math of what it took in manpower and the toll on the individuals involved in “the greatest manhunt in history” it was much longer. The constant weight of something of this nature will age you much more than the traditional year would.
This is what ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ is about, the people who gave up more than 10 years of their lives (and in some cases their lives altogether) for this 10 year search. It was an all-encompassing, life-altering ordeal that ended, as we all know, in one of the seminal moments in this country’s post 9/11 history. It was a “cut the head off the snake” move, but it was also a message to the terrorists of the world that America would fight back...and wouldn’t stop.
There were plenty of things that went wrong with 9/11 and the fallout. The amount of intel that was received before the attack and ignored. The reaction to the attack that led to two wars which only served to increase the deficit with ever growing spending. The false reports of WMDs in Iraq that led to one of said wars, and probably many other failures we’re not privy to as the general public.
The movie chooses not to focus on those things as to not get involved in the politics of the matter. There is a sense that there is a before-and-after to this story, but we don’t see it here. All that’s presented is the story itself and each crucial step along the way is shown in detail.
Matter of fact, this movie is so concerned with its plot, that becomes the ultimate hurdle it can’t leap over. The movie is broken up into book-like chapters that even have their own titles. It might be necessary based on the material they had to work with, but its also an easy excuse to not have to come up with character based transition moments. We are simply here one moment, and there the next. Bigelow has maintained this is a “journalistic” style, which is well and good. The problem is, in this scenario it dilutes the effectiveness of the story.
Part of what makes the movie successful is would be Chastain’s steely, emotionally stifled, performance. Yet, some of that is lost with the lack of transition from one point to the next. I absolutely understand the issue behind source material, but part of the movies intention appears to be for us to feel the weight of this manhunt on the main character, and pieces of that get lost along the way.
Perhaps it’s merely a problem of mine and not others, but for some reason I couldn’t connect with this movie as fully as I feel it required. I got the same feeling coming out of ‘The Hurt Locker’ by Bigelow as well. There is greatness contained within, but both seem to be so focused on their realism and plot that they lose something along the way. There is no stance taken by Bigelow one way or another over any political leanings. There is an element of intention because this operation wasn’t about politics it was about America. Even still, in an effort to strip all politics out of it, they strip away some of the charge as well.
While Chastain’s performance was excellent as per usual, I wasn’t drawn into this film as many seemed to have been. It was certainly interesting to see how everything came together to make this operation a success, but there was just something missing. Characters come into the film and play important roles, only to hardly even have their name mentioned and then disappear just as suddenly. Background info like how many children a character has or other attributes that paint them as people in the real world are eschewed for more procedural elements that lend to the story, but not the players.
It’s a great skill Bigelow has to juggle large topics and not get lost in the mess. Even better is her ability to breed tension. Where she appears to lack is a true understanding of her characters beyond the words on the page. Or perhaps more accurately, not understanding the necessity of them as the essence of the story. Motivations are muddled and events take center stage instead of the characters.
Chastains excellent performance appears to be in spite of her director, and not as much because of her. And the lesser actors in the movie suffer from this reality. Most of which get devolved into set pieces and plot points as opposed to living, breathing individuals who have a stake in the world they’re trying to protect. I might be alone, but if Bigelow has a fatal to her skill, that appears to be it.
Overall, this is a well-made film with a great lead performance, if not flawed in other areas.. It gives a lot of information about one of the rare successes in CIA history. What it doesn’t do is make itself a fully engrossing film. It’s worth your time, but expectations have been driven up higher than they should be.