Kathryn Bigelow’s latest feature has been basking in endless praise since its limited Oscar qualifying release in December while also being criticized for its perceived glorification of torture as a means to attain important information in the hunt for Osama Bin Laden. I do not fully buy into either aspect surrounding the film- by that I mean while I think the film is kind of great, it’s also not a perfect film and I think in no way shape or form glorifies the acts people commit to get the information they seek. ZERO DARK THIRTY is intense and engrossing, but it drags due to its bloated runtime and lacks emotional depth.
The film details the decade long hunt for the mastermind of the September 11th attack and begins with a pitch black screen as we hear 911 calls on the morning of the attacks. Using that as a backdrop alone does not earn the film the emotion I wanted from the crescendo of intensity at the end of the film when we finally get our man, but it starts it off in an engaging fashion. Just because it didn’t focus on the emotional depth from the characters that I would have preferred doesn’t mean that I don’t recognize the skill of Bigelow’s direction. The introduction and the final half hour of film are marvels of tense filmmaking, while the middle of the film I found myself drifting in and out as far as my interest in the events. At first I mistook my feelings as boredom, but essentially I feel it’s just indifference and the fact that the information exchanges happen in such a whirlwind that instead of being in control of my understanding of the events I was just sort of along for the ride rather I connected with it or not.
I’m not a news junkie and I don’t follow current events as closely as some more involved in this story might, but I’m not ignorant to the portrayal of an event I’m perfectly aware of the ending to. I wanted nothing more than to be fascinated by the investigation involved in tracking Bin Laden and there were stretches that I was just that, but certain techniques used by Bigelow and the way the script is written/performed felt a bit more overwhelming and garbled. Essentially at times I felt like I was in a conversation with someone who tends to mumble and rather than ask them to repeat themselves when I didn’t understand what they said, I just kind of nodded, smiled and moved on to the next subject.
Jessica Chastain as a character evolves from someone fresh off the boat in a situation where she has to become comfortable with CIA torture techniques to do her job, to someone who may or may not be too personally involved with the tracking down of a subject to the point that we question if the ethics involved is truly the right thing. Her character is the most developed in the film and you still know almost nothing about her- with no back-story or insight to what is really driving her, the obsession she develops seems more dangerous than ethical and the last shot allows for any number of assumptions about the toll the investigation really played on her. Chastain herself plays the role great and towards the end delivers one of the best lines of the year.
I also really loved Jason Clarke’s performance, but again he’s a character we know nothing about. We know he’s effective as a device to torture detainees and that he loves monkeys and his demeanor is that of someone doing what he’s got to do to get information. Then there are the folks in S.E.A.L. Team 6 that we spend the final half hour with and again there’s not enough time to care about them as people. Sure there’s tension in the staging of the climactic raid on the compound that Bin Laden may or may not be in, but as characters there’s no connection with anyone one of them where you could pick one out and hope nothing bad happens to that one specifically. The raid itself is a legit piece of tense action cinema and well worth the price of admission- the score during the buildup gets the pulse pumping and sound design during the raid is phenomenal. This is a scene that is intricately detailed and paced in an authentic and harrowing way.
My initial reaction to ZERO DARK THIRTY was that I felt the film was overhyped, but I think it’s important to clarify that I do not mean that it’s overrated. Bigelow’s film is worth the praise many people are bestowing upon it, but the extent that I personally believe in that praise is dialed back a bit. At over two and a half hours I feel there’s quite a bit in the middle of this film that could have been chopped down and it would have been better for it. The length is also why I feel the lack of character development for the majority of the cast is as disappointing as it was for me personally. However, even in spite of my issues with the film it is definitely a nail biting procedural that climaxes with a heart pounding action sequence. In the end, for me ZERO DARK THIRTY falls just short of being one of the best films of the year.
Written By: Luke (@CrummyLuke on Twitter)