It was only a matter of time before Hollywood would release a feature depicting the manhunt for Osama Bin Laden. One would think that award winning director Kathryn Bigelow would be the ideal choice for tackling such subject matter—but "Zero Dark Thirty" proves just the opposite. Those expecting "Zero Dark Thirty" to have the intensity and nuance of Bigelow’s previous effort, "The Hurt Locker," are in for a letdown. "Zero Dark Thirty" is an unoriginal, one-dimensional take on the efforts to kill the world’s most wanted terrorist.
Bigelow’s narrative begins with the events of September 11th and flashes forward to the antiterrorism effort in the Middle East. Spearheading the mission to catch Bin Laden is Jessica Chastain’s Maya, who we later learn was recruited to the CIA immediately after graduating high school. For over two and a half hours, the audience is given a play by play of all the supposed tactics employed to find the Al-Qaeda chieftain. In a miscalculated attempt to keep viewers emotionally invested, "Zero Dark Thirty" reenacts several terrorist bombings. These scenes come off as means of spicing up the movie with cheap thrills and fail to advance the plot.
"Zero Dark Thirty" fancies itself as a realistic examination of the events that lead up to Bin Laden’s assassination, so much so that Mark Boal’s screenplay forgoes character development in favor of zoning in on the various obstacles the CIA faced. Some may find Boal’s detached storytelling effective, but it causes "Zero Dark Thirty" to feel more like an overlong, over-budgeted History Channel reenactment than a thoughtful drama. Bigelow’s "Hurt Locker" was masterful in part because it illustrated the psychological effects of combat on American soldiers. By comparison, "Zero Dark Thirty" depicts one war crime after another—from torture to terrorism—without pausing to examine the lasting effects on all those involved. For example, two of the film’s main characters are present for 2008’s Al-Qaeda bombing of the Islamabad Marriot. In true Hollywood fashion, they survive unscathed and there is no further mention of that event. Such scripting issues render "Zero Dark Thirty" a decidedly superficial work.
As if "Zero Dark Thirty" couldn’t be any more conventional, it’s overloaded with character archetypes. There’s a driven female in the male dominated CIA, a ragtag group of Navy SEALS, and a slew of tough talking intelligence staffers. "The Help"'s Jessica Chastain is one of the most promising actresses working today, but she can only do so much in the stale role of Maya. All the buzz surrounding her this awards season is unwarranted. The supporting cast does a snooze-worthy job as well. James Gandolfini, Joel Edgerton, and Mark Strong are all good actors, but their talent goes to waste playing stock characters. Kyle Chandler seems to be reprising his exact part from "Argo," which was an infinitely superior—albeit still flawed—look at US-Middle East tensions.
"Zero Dark Thirty"’s sole saving grace is its last half hour. Bigelow’s portrayal of the raid on Bin Laden’s compound delivers the excitement promised in the trailer. The sequence’s use of first-person perspective significantly ups the on-screen suspense. Granted, "Zero Dark Thirty"’s climax feels kind of like watching someone playing "Call of Duty." But given the preceding two plus hours of boredom, that’s not such a bad thing.