“Zero Dark Thirty” movie review

The most controversial film of 2012, Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty has received wide critical acclaim, as well as sharp criticism over its depiction of the CIA’s use of torture in their hunt for Osama Bin Laden.  This heated debate will continue to the Academy Awards, where the film is up for Best Picture, but Bigelow was passed over for a Best Director nomination.  At the heart of all this controversy, however, lies a film: a well made procedural with good acting, but it’s at times disjointed and lacking that sense of “greatness” that early reviews hyped.

Reuniting with the Oscar-winning team behind “The Hurt Locker” (including writer Mark Boal), “Zero Dark Thirty” chronicles the 10-year hunt for Osama Bin Laden.  Beginning with audio recordings on 9/11, the film jumps ahead two years to a CIA “black-site” where al-Qaeda detainees are being tortured for information.  Enter young CIA agent “Maya” (Jessica Chastain), whose fierce determination to catch Bin Laden fuels her to spend years chasing the name Abu Ahmed – supposedly Bin Laden’s personal courier – and letting nothing get in her way.

Much like “The Hurt Locker,” the film utilizes a naturalistic handheld style that fits the docu-drama style of the story, following Maya and her fellow agents as they chase leads and face serious setbacks in the war on terror.  The 10-year time span is a long time to cover, and the film struggles to keep a consistent pace, as well as keep the audience on the same page as the characters.  Certain scenes – such as a rendezvous with a mysterious informant – are well executed, but the film often skips from one major discovery to the next, leaving out the years of grunt work in between.   As for the controversy over the torture, the film never portrays it in a positive manner, but the narrative of the film (truthfully or not) does depict it as central to the chain of information that led to Bin Laden’s death.  In fact, the CIA (who apparently provided extensive information to the filmmakers) comes off as downright addicted to torture, clearly annoyed when Obama (seen in background TVs) cuts off their water-boarding abilities.

As Maya, Jessica Chastain (of last year’s “The Tree of Life” and “The Help”) is a tightly wound ball buster who will step on anyone’s toes to achieve her goal.  After a colleague is killed, the mission takes on a personal level; on the day of the raid, she tells Seal Team 6: “Bin Laden is there … and you’re going to kill him for me.”  The cast also features several nice performances from the likes of Jason Clarke and Mark Strong, but the film struggles to balance the extensive exposition of the hunt with establishing and developing characters.  While “The Hurt Locker” was able to richly explore its main characters in the context of a war zone, “Zero Dark Thirty” often gets bogged down in the details, preventing us from making any emotional connection (that is, until the white-knuckle climax of the raid on Bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound).  It’s an interesting look into the exhaustive hunt for America’s most wanted, but not much more than a well-mounted Hollywood history lesson.


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