Written by: Kristen Lopez, Editor in Chief
Zero Dark Thirty has received a bevy of praise and condemnation from people of all political ideologies; both critics and casual movie observers. In addition to its controversy, it also works as a proving ground for director Kathryn Bigelow, as critics still debate whether her Academy Award a few years back for The Hurt Locker was deserved or not. All this attention places this particular film on a pedestal of mighty expectations. Sadly, Zero Dark Thirty doesn’t live up to all the hype and acclaim, nor does it deserve all the controversy. The jingoistic plotline is inspiring and interesting in discussing modern warfare, and what our military is doing without our knowledge. At the same time, it requires the audience to have followed all the news items in the years after 9-11, or be able to keep up. Leading Actress nominee Jessica Chastain is really the X-factor that elevates the material, and without her I doubt Zero Dark Thirty would truly be what it is.
The ten-year manhunt for Osama Bin Laden is explored as an idealistic CIA operative (Jessica Chastain) struggles to find the notorious mass murderer while holding onto her sanity.
Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boall have done their homework; there’s no doubt about that. Sure, there’s quibbling over how much top-secret information they received, but regardless this movie unfolds like a tightly wound military operation. We’re introduced to Maya, our CIA heroine, as she sees a “detainee” being tortured by Dan (Jason Clarke). This is where the controversy has come from, and I really didn’t understand all the horror. The actual torturing lasts about twenty minutes, out of 157 minute film, and once it’s introduced we don’t see it again. The core logic behind the vitriol is whether the torture scene is meant to evoke the idea that torture allowed us to find Bin Laden. Really, I only noticed that when people started discussing it. If anything, the torture scene goes hand-in-hand with Dan’s caged monkeys that he treats better than people. No matter what, a cage is a cage, whether you like the thing in it or not. Bigelow’s greatest condemnation seems to be about how we treat fellow people, and whether confinement for the sake of confinement is right (although they mention the detainee program dissolving under the pressure, history today still leaves us with Guantanamo Bay as a reminder of what confinement looks like).
The rest of the movie plays out like a typical political thriller, and I think that’s where the movie falters. Outside of the core mission being so ingrained in US minds, there’s really nothing that sets Zero Dark Thirty apart from the countless Middle Eastern dramas we’ve seen post-9/11. The pacing is slow and methodical; unraveling the network of various couriers that work for Bin Laden. The utmost attention is required, or else you’ll be hopelessly lost on how people interconnect. One’s knowledge of the news seems to be proportionate to their enjoyment of this work because the way characters talk; it makes the audience feel as if they should know certain things going in. By the hour mark, the way they find Bin Laden almost feels too pat, and just needs to be included to wrap things up.
Jessica Chastain is the reason this film is getting the attention, and she deserves it all. Bigelow really explores gender roles within Zero Dark Thirty, more than anything else. The script doesn’t waste time on having Maya be harassed, or force Maya to prove herself against the men. That is implied, but really it’s negligible. Maya’s determination to confront Bin Laden is out of patriotic duty, as well as being a newbie. When she tells the director of the CIA (James Gandolfini) that she’s done “nothing else,” it’s a loaded statement. If she doesn’t capture Bin Laden than everything she’s done has been a waste, and she’s lost her entire identity in trying to catch this man. Used as a foil to her is Jennifer Ehle’s character Jessica, who’s a more well-rounded character than Maya. She’s a good woman who can balance the job, and a life only to end up dying for the cause. I would have enjoyed making Maya less of a robotic character, but you have no idea how happy I was to see a film that didn’t recycle the copious slate of films where a woman is in the military. In fact, in the aforementioned torture moment one of the detainees tries to appeal to Maya’s feminine sentiments to save him; to no avail. Yes, there are a few moments where Chastain’s character is written to be far too tough. The infamous scene of Maya telling the CIA Director that “I’m the motherfucker who found the place” is funny, and does give the scene a sense that Maya has proven her mettle, but I’m not sure if that’s professional to say in front of your superior. And I’m not saying that because she’s a woman, I’m thinking a man would be taken to task for it too.
Ultimately, Zero Dark Thirty is good from an acting standpoint, and simply average as a story. Without Chastain’s magnetic presence, the movie is just a long, methodical tale detailing the background of events of which we know the outcome. The final raid on the Bin Laden compound is sufficiently tense, and well-filmed (you have no idea how fearful I was that we’d see a shaky head-cam or something). Chastain should win an Oscar for her role as well. I just feel Bigelow could have done better; or we’ve glutted ourselves on political thrillers already, so much so that nothing is able to truly surprise.
Author: Kristen Lopez, Editor in Chief
Kristen Lopez is the editor-in-chief of CC2K and a freelance pop culture essayist. Her work has appeared on Roger Ebert, The Hollywood Reporter, and The Daily Beast. When she’s not burning down Film Twitter she runs two podcasts, the female-centric film show Citizen Dame, and the classic film-themed Ticklish Business.