Zero Dark Thirty
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow. Starring Jessica Chastain, Mark Strong, Joel Edgerton, Chris Pratt, Scott Adkins, Édgar Ramírez, Jason Clarke, Jennifer Ehle, Kyle Chandler, Harold Perrineau, Daniel Lapaine, Fares Fares, Callan Mulvey, Nash Edgerton, Jeff Mash, Lee Asquith-Coe, Mark Duplass, James Gandolfini, Stephen Dillane, Fredric Lehne. Written by Mark Boal.
What happens when reality gets in the way of a good movie: director Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, formerly titled Kill Bin Laden, was originally conceived as an account of the CIA’s unsuccessful attempts to track down the al Qaeda founder behind the 9/11 attacks, a Zodiac-style account of a frustratingly unresolved case.
But a funny thing happened on the way to production: after ten years (spoiler alert?), the CIA actually tracked down and killed Bin Laden. Mark Boal’s already-finished script was completely rewritten, and the film now had a happy ending. Of sorts.
The result is a superb piece of filmmaking, expertly-crafted and efficiently told, with a dynamite final act that solidifies Bigelow’s standing as one of the finest action directors in the game. Yet, it never quite lived up to my expectations; The Hurt Locker, Bigelow & Boal’s previous film – which took home the Academy Award for Best Picture over Avatar in 2010 – was one of my favorites of the past decade or so, and I kept wondering why I wasn’t connecting with Zero Dark Thirty in the same way.
Part of that has to do with the structure of the film. The first two-thirds is a fascinating step-by-step procedural detailing the hunt for Bin Laden, with CIA operative Maya (Jessica Chastain) obtaining information and spearheading a series of unsuccessful pursuits before finally landing on the right trail. This is compelling stuff, though we know exactly where it’s headed, and patiently await the payoff.
That comes – in spades – during the final third of the movie, which details the planning and execution of the raid by the Navy’s SEAL Team 6 on Bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound. This results in a nail-biting crackerjack 25-minute action sequence that is so satisfying in pure filmmaking terms – regardless of your feelings about the rest of the film, or the real-life incident it depicts – that you can’t help but be thrilled.
The climax is so good, in fact, one wishes the entire movie had been devoted to SEAL Team 6; while the first two acts of the film feel like they have had enough time dedicated to them, the final act seems like it gets the short end of the stick; important characters played by Joel Edgerton and Chris Pratt are only barely sketched.
Really, there’s two movies going on here: one is the search for Bin Laden, which no longer has the same relevance given the ultimate result (though it’s still fascinating stuff), and one about the actual operation to raid the compound once he’s been found. Individually, they work just fine; together, they form a less-than fully cohesive whole. This film is crying to be split into two parts.
Chastain, nominated for an Oscar for her performance, is excellent as the film’s anchor, the one character seeing the operation through from beginning to end. Still, Boal doesn’t quite know what to do with her character by the end, reaching for a catharsis that recalls the Jeremy Renner character’s in The Hurt Locker. It doesn’t completely take.
The supporting cast is outstanding, though no one sticks around long enough to make too large an impact. Two exceptions: Jason Clarke, dynamite during early scenes as the interrogator, and Édgar Ramírez (so good as the titular terrorist in Carlos) as the operative who finally gets Maya what she needs. Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Ehle, Mark Strong, Mark Duplass, James Gandolfini, and Stephen Dillane all turn in brief but memorable work.
Zero Dark Thirty has been criticized for its supposed support of torture techniques in acquiring intelligence, an allegation that completely misses the mark. In fact, the film shows the complete opposite: while early scenes depict the use of torture techniques, including waterboarding, the information gathered through them ultimately proves to be inadequate. Maya only caught on Bin Laden’s trail when more traditional detective work was employed (the threat of torture, however, did lead result in some useful intel).
While I didn’t connect with Zero Dark Thirty, other critics have: with a 95 rating at Metacritic, this is at the top of the list of the best-reviewed films of the past decade. Whatever its flaws, this is a exceptionally-made thriller that delivers one of the most intense action sequences in recent memory.
Along with Chastain’s Best Actress nomination, the film has been nominated for Oscars for Best Picture, Original Screenplay, Editing, and Sound Editing. It has a chance at the latter three categories, and Boal’s script just won the WGA Award for Screenplay, a good indicator for this weekend’s Academy Awards.
(Note: looking to catch the Oscars in Prague this Sunday? The Globe is having an Oscar Party from 00:00, staying open until the final winners are announced at around 05:00.)