REVIEW: Zero Dark Thirty [2012]

Score: 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: R | Runtime: 157 minutes | Release Date: December 19th, 2012 (USA)
Studio: Columbia Pictures / Sony Pictures Releasing
Director(s): Kathryn Bigelow
Writer(s): Mark Boal

“Some hummus, tabouli—I don’t know what that is—some figs”

I have a very clear recollection of the day Osama bin Laden was killed in Pakistan because I was having dinner in India when a friend Facebook messaged me from America with the news. With no fanfare or announcement, Hindi reporters on TV were my only point of confirmation before bed. Naively (stupidly) while waiting to leave Jaipur for Ahmedabad as lobby televisions played soaps instead of breaking news the next morning, I allowed a local paper to interview me about safety concerns. Explaining it wouldn’t affect my trip—besides the myriad jovial people yelling “Obama!” and “bin Laden, dead!” to us everywhere we went afterwards—I let them take a photo, giving only my first name for some semblance of anonymity. I forgot my passport had been scanned at every hotel.

So far removed from 9-11, I guess the danger produced by what occurred had lost its full impact despite there being a real chance Al Qaeda would retaliate on Americans abroad. I had forgot about Public Enemy No. 1, his ghost-like disappearing act seeming as though he was dead or long gone never to be found again. It was therefore with huge anticipation that I entered the theater for Kathryn Bigelow‘s Zero Dark Thirty. Culled from first-hand accounts by quality sources screenwriter Mark Boal befriended over the years, this would be the definitive tale of the CIA’s search. Traversing the torture, the leads, the dead ends, the casualties, and SEAL Team 6, this is the story of our nation’s greatest manhunt for its most dangerous enemy.

And yet I felt underwhelmed as the credits rolled. Perhaps my excitement got the better of me, unprepared for the meticulously detailed, decade-long road traveled for vengeance. I wanted to see the SEAL Team 6 story—their preparation, execution, and success. Instead I got the genesis of a cutthroat CIA interrogator who refused to take “No” for an answer. Where I thought there would be emotional resonance or closure or adrenaline pumping action only lived a clinical behind-the-scenes essay on perseverance, bureaucracy, and the relentless few willing to go to dark corners of themselves to protect their nation. Rather than a fictional barnburner leaving me at the edge of my seat, Zero Dark Thirty for the most part is a reenactment of events that may have played just as effectively through documentary interviews.

This doesn’t mean it’s a bad film; it just wasn’t what I expected. Bigelow continues to show us why she won the Best Director Oscar for The Hurt Locker, moving her sights beyond the Middle East for the war-torn aesthetic of Pakistan and other CIA Black Sites around the world. She paints a brutal veracity with scenes of torture, orchestrates some stunning explosions with an inside look at the 2008 Marriott Hotel bombing in Islamabad being the best, and portrays a close to first-person look through night vision goggles of the Abbottabad compound infiltration that culminated in bin Laden’s demise. Flashes of the brilliant vantage points manufactured in her Strange Days came to mind during this climactic scene—the tension ratcheted up despite knowing exactly how it would end.

What struck me as the possible problem in pacing from the laborious details of nine years over two hours before the rapid fire assault is the fact Boal and Bigelow’s original intentions were to shoot a film about the 2001 Battle of Tora Bora. Only as news of bin Laden’s death surfaced did they decide to scrap those plans and rework their research into the all-encompassing tome they have. The tone therefore gets jumbled as the action Boal originally coveted—he’s mentioned plans for a prequel delving closer to that originally desired genre—is pushed aside for drama. Even the thriller aspect is stretched too thin to really impact us, the search for Abu Ahmed repeating in perpetuity as the one woman believing he’s the key defiantly stands against an agency more focused on home.

This is Maya’s (Jessica Chastain) story, beginning with her still green novice arriving in the desert and ending with the culmination of all her hard work in honor of those she lost along the way. Time moves abruptly through the years showing glimpses of her maturation through scenes portraying her in opposition to new co-workers before proving best friends the next. The process forces our attention on Maya alone as her boss Joseph (Kyle Chandler), mentor Dan (Jason Clarke), and confidant Jessica (Jennifer Ehle) come and go while government men like George (Mark Strong) and the CIA Director (James Gandolfini) yell for answers and certainty despite none being readily available. But as every lead grows cold, the one for Abu Ahmed remains viable until the day Maya earns enough clout to make the others listen.

Zero Dark Thirty reminded me of Argo with its plethora of familiar faces popping up for mere minutes—look out for Édgar Ramírez, John Barrowman, Mark Duplass, and “Human Target” Mark Valley—as well as its telling of covert, clandestine affairs. Unlike Ben Affleck‘s film, however, Bigelow and Boal have faced a lot of criticism for accusations their sources divulged confidential material. This isn’t thirty years later; it’s barely two. But while that may prove a problem for the government and their handling of sensitive material, it’s a boon for audiences clamoring to know what happened. I just hope the overblown outrage towards authentically depicted torture doesn’t keep them away because it by no means comes across as condoning or a condemning. The scenes merely show witnessed fact.

Our entry into the film is therefore a stirring one of mixed feelings placing us as unwitting accomplices to the atrocities. This is our vicarious revenge against the monster that killed three thousand on 9-11. My only disappointment is that from there until Joel Edgerton, Chris Pratt, and Frank Grillo‘s SEAL team enters the fray lies two hours of misstarts, missteps, and heated verbal sparring. America had to wait ten years for their big payoff so a little of that frustration isn’t unwelcome to set up the inevitable win. I just wonder whether a little trimmed fat wouldn’t have helped increase my engagement level, prevented me from morphing Chastain’s stalwart soldier into a whiny sore loser, and allowed me to see the finished piece as the masterpiece so many others do.

[1] Stationed in a covert base overseas, Jessica Chastain plays a member of the elite team of spies and military operatives who secretly devoted themselves to finding Osama Bin Laden in Columbia Pictures’ electrifying new thriller directed by Kathryn Bigelow, ZERO DARK THIRTY. PHOTO BY: Jonathan Olley © 2012 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. All rights reserved.
[2] Chris Pratt (left) and Joel Edgerton play the SEAL Team Six soldiers who raid Osama Bin Laden’s compound in Columbia Pictures’ mesmerizing new action thriller from director Kathryn Bigelow, ZERO DARK THIRTY. PHOTO BY: Jonathan Olley ©2012 Zero Dark Thirty, LLC. All Rights Reserved.
[3] From his command post inside the CIA, Mark Strong directs the fight against the world’s most dangerous man in Columbia Pictures’ revealing new thriller directed by Kathryn Bigelow, ZERO DARK THIRTY. PHOTO BY: Jonathan Olley © 2012 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. All rights reserved.

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