Kathryn Bigelow's film about "the greatest manhunt in history" is called Zero Dark Thirty. The title refers to a military term used for dark early morning hours. Her film is thorough and carefully crafted but ultimately suffers from a lack of contemporaries. Hollywood probably wanted Bigelow to make an action movie at first, we already had to live with the Osama zombie flick.
We follow a maybe real, maybe not CIA officer who was hell bent on finding Osama Bin Laden for ten years. As for character that's the extent of it. The heroine's appearance doesn't even change during the decade. Jessica Chastain's performance of the dedicated agent is poignant but the character isn't much to work with. It is as though she is but a small piece in this story.
The film has caught some heat for its depiction of American interrogation but the acts of extremists are used with the same sensationalized bravado. Each bit of violence is a method to entice us on the journey. Upon the agent's arrival in Pakistan we are immediately shown the grizzly matter of an interrogation but later in the movie suicide bombers erupt as suddenly as they would in real life.
For all Bigelow's inclusion of the dramatics, the films predominant screen time is spent trying to craft a realistic depiction of CIA procedures. With the world of spies so entrenched in fantasy, use of terms like tradecraft and other intelligence jargon will seem authentic yet pendatic (most people don't even know what the title means). Just a window into the problem this complex story had to deal with, making a mainstream movie.
Zero Dark Thirty will almost feel real, as though they were able to condence the most important moments of the story, but our main character gives us no sense of reality. It seems Bigelow employs all her tricks but her famous ability to paint realistic characters. The film, instead, pans to our sense of nation by using terrorist acts as the protagonist's only motivation to mindlessly pursue what almost becomes a merely symbolic act.
The film is steadfast in its approach of presenting a complex world but it is also trying to play as blockbuster action thriller. The problem is with the person anchoring us to the story, she is as one sided as a hero in a cowboy movie. This isn't a cowboy movie and America doesn't need it to be. "ZDT" is a mainstream film that isn't like the usual "popcorn thrillers," does that make it brilliant? Only if the bar is a little lower than it should.