Director Kathryn Bigelow returns to the genre that gave her super-stardom. “Zero Dark Thirty” is a return to familiar territory, and while I’ll say that it’s a step down from her prior film "The Hurt Locker," it’s still a very superb film.
The movie, very simply, follows the hunt for Osama bin Laden. It begins literally the day of Sept. 11, 2001, where we hear excerpts from news stories and phone calls jumbled together. We follow a particular CIA analyst sent over to Afghanistan in order to hunt down bin Laden’s crew, and bin Laden (code-named UBL in the film) himself.
The film is told in a very down-to-earth, realistic style. Bigelow knows how to use a handheld camera: never once does it call attention to itself, but it gives both life and immediacy to what we watch. When there is action the film doesn’t cut into a million shots, and the cameraman doesn’t have an epileptic seizure—it’s clear, concise, and understood what is happening.
The film does a lot of interesting things, just to note. Such as the final sequence at bin Laden’s compound. It is told in real time, and while this does induce some time-checking, there are minutes that go by where you hold your breath in suspense and anticipation (for example, the helicopters’ approach to the compound, with simple percussion beats, is breathtakingly orchestrated).
And this leads to one of the film’s few missteps. Its pacing, while perhaps not horrible, leaves one feeling the one’s butt is sore. The movie is a solid 150 minutes, and it feels it. And while there are not necessarily any dead patches—where I felt the movie truly stopped in totality—it just feels like the film does overstay its welcome somewhere along the line.
The performances are stellar for the material. This isn’t a film especially about a group of people, but an individual; and that individual, but virtue, is one-dimensional. She exists to seek bin Laden. We understand her and feel for her, but only artificially. She is so bent on finding this one man—which, later in the film, becomes a revenge story of sorts—and sacrificing not only those around her but her own future, that we accept her one-dimensionality. And in that regard, Jessica Chastain knocks it out of the park. We believe her, and that’s the best that can be gotten from a film about such a tight, recent subject matter.
And as a final statement—I felt like the film was not necessarily just about the hunt for bin Laden. While watching the film, we pass through two presidential regimes: Bush Jr.’s and Obama’s. The first half of the film, during Bush’s term, is chaotic and somewhat messy: the dialogue overlaps and we never have a very clear idea of exactly what the characters are discussing. But when Obama takes over, signaled by a television broadcast of a speech of his, the dialogue suddenly takes on a concise, logical angle.
While the film is a cold, non-political look at what we can all agree was probably the greatest manhunt in history, it also takes a cold, unbiased look at a changing world. We see what has happened after 9/11, and each viewer seems to take their own from the film. The fact that the end is not heroic in any way—even though the man that killed over 3,000 innocent people in numerous terrorist attack—with downplayed music, crying characters, and a generally bluesy tone…that speaks leagues more to an audience, I feel, than any heroic move would have done.
In the end, while it may be stretching it to say that the film is either a comment on the past decade of politics, or that the film is a statement about American, and the world itself, changing and becoming something (possibly something sinister), this is still a film that, while flawed, is important and worth watching.
Note: Due to the coverage it gained, I can say that the torture scenes, which take place early in the film, are not as graphic as one would think. There is not violence particularly as much as squirming, and not because of gore. There is drowning simulation (putting a wet rag over someone’s face) and putting in an enclosed box like a coffin—but not true violence, like bones breaking and blood spilling. It is probably demeaning, not just to the person on-screen, but to the audience to think that their country practiced such things. But in terms of violence—do not fret, there’s nothing “Djano Unchained” level here.