Zero Dark Thirty is an interesting film. Interesting is the best word I can think of, because I don’t consider it excellent, although I’m quite sure it will win the Oscar for Best Picture. It’s just that type of film, like Katheryn Bigelow‘s last film, The Hurt Locker. In fact, it’s damn near a sequel to The Hurt Locker in the way that it is an examination of the war on terror, the human cost of such a war, and the personal battles involved in waging war on individuals, as opposed to countries.
Jessica Chastain stars as Maya, a CIA expert on Al-Quaeda, as she spends the first 12 years of her career hunting Osama Bin Laden. The film skips years and geographical locations, as it follows the major events in the hunt for the world’s most wanted terrorist, all the way up until his death at the hands of Navy S.E.A.L. Team Six during an overnight raid in May 2011 (real life spoiler, I suppose). The story follows the complex myriad of events that led to the final raid on the compound in Pakistan, the incidents of coincidence and pure luck that led to the death of Osama Bin Laden.
Surely, Jessica Chastain is in line to win Best Actress for her role, although it didn’t require a lot of acting, the subtlety of the character is what will capture the hearts and minds of Academy voters. Not to mention the fact that it’s one of the few female roles that isn’t coy or horribly depressing, so it will likely be rewarded as such.
The film as a whole is meant to be a meditation on violence as a weapon, and like The Hurt Locker, the film goes out of its way to avoid partisan politics, but the statements it makes about the War On Terror itself become political statements when all is said and done. Throughout, there are interesting characters played by great actors, like Jason Clarke‘s Dan, who opens the film with extreme intensity. Kyle Chandler plays the politically savvy CIA station director, Mark Strong plays the hard-headed D.C.-based boss, Mark Duplass makes a surprising turn as a serious CIA analyst, James Gandolfini appears in a small role as the overbearing CIA director, and Joel Edgerton and Chris Pratt round up the final half hour as the leads of S.E.A.L. Team Six. The acting is superb all around, but the roles each have a diminished impact on the film as a whole, it’s Jessica Chastain‘s film for the most part.
The biggest problem the film has is it follows a sequence of events, not a personal story, but it tries to fit a personal story onto that framework, with intermittent success. The direction is superb, most scenes are shot with an urgency that only adds to the intensity, and the sequence where the experimental helicopters cross into Pakistan for the final raid has a haunting quality, even though I’m quite sure the helicopters themselves were CGI. The production design was excellent, as they shot in parts of India and Jordan, but it looks just like the real compound, which has since been featured in documentaries about the raid. Greig Fraser’s cinematography adds to the intensity of the film, and keeps the tone based in reality.
It’s not an excellent film in the end, although it is excellently made, and well acted throughout. The final half hour is the most interesting part, as it’s the only part of the story we’ve never really seen played out (in nearly real-time, no less), but it leaves the film feeling disjointed, and it’s obvious that the ending was added onto the film when Bin Laden was killed. Still, as a reflection of reality, it serves its purpose, and it’s one of very few films I can think of (Reservoir Dogs being the other one) that doesn’t involve a romantic relationship at any point during the film. The easy out would have been to make it a film about obsession, but at the same time it’s not. Unfortunately, this leaves it floundering aimlessly in spots. It was well made throughout, but in the end, it wasn’t ultimately satisfying as a whole. Still, it’s the dramatic “adult themed” (sounds like porn, right?) film with the type of acting that the Academy loves, so I expect it to do well come Oscar time.