Nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Actress (Jessica Chastain), the latest film from 'The Hurt Locker' director Kathryn Bigalow finds her visiting the Middle East again to depict the ten-year manhunt and killing of Osama bin Laden. A film about the killing of bin Laden may seem a tad too soon for a few but thankfully this is not the Call of Duty “America Rulz!” action film that people initially feared it would be but instead a low-key spy thriller with an action climax.
To the credit of Bigalow, she talked to actual counterterrorism operatives in developing the script, which lends greatly to the sense of grounded realism that this procedural spy thriller needed. The script was also in development even before bin Laden’s death, originally centered on the 2001 Battle of Tora Bora, ending with the protagonists failing to find him. After bin Laden’s death, the script was revamped to include a new ending that dramatizes the Navy Seal Team 6 operation.
There is no denying Bigalow’s high-octane skills at shooting realist military action. The definitive highlight of the film (and most likely the sole reason anyone will probably go see this) is the riveting dramatization of the Seal Team 6 raid on bin Laden’s compound. The tight documentary-like editing, night-vision cinematography, claustrophobic atmosphere, and the professional but brutal nature of the action are all spot on. The film also has a few scenes depicting torture of detainees by methods such as waterboarding and violent interrogations that are portrayed in an unsettling objective light.
However much like 'The Hurt Locker', this film is superior execution over a hollow plot that offers little substance outside of its abridged fictionalized recounts. Most of the film’s episodic plot is a fairly bare bones and makes little effort in conjuring compelling characters or drama. Even the main protagonist CIA agent Maya, played by Jessica Chastain, is given zero backstory or depth. Chastain’s performance also feels so robotic and stilted in her delivery that it becomes impossible to be emotionally drawn into the narrative (Oscar nomination for THIS performance?). Jason Clarke, who plays a strong yet charismatic CIA interrogator Dan, gives the true standout performance because of how normal he appears for a guy with such an ugly job.
The film also fails to engage its subject manner in a meaningful way. The role that torture methods such as waterboarding had in finding bin Laden is probably inaccurately exaggerated and its moral implication are never discussed. Maya sacrificing years of her life for her job, Dan’s risking his humanity in beating people, or the terrorists motivations are also never delved into.
While the 30-minute bin Laden raid finale contains impressive filmmaking, the 2 hours that come before only offer a competent enough but by-the-numbers spy thriller that tends to meander at times. Worthy of a one-time viewing for people interested in the procedures that lead to bin Laden’s death but the depiction of events should not be taken at full face value.