"Zero Dark Thirty" Favors Technocratic Over Operatic

Over the years, the ubiquitous “based on a true story” title card has become more of a warning than an invitation – “this film was inspired by some stuff that we think probably happened (but lots of it didn’t happen).” It’s all too easy to bitch and moan about creative liberties taken by filmmakers, so easy that we lose sight of why it’s done in the first place. Embellishments are cinematic. In Ben Affleck’s recent (and fantastic) “Argo,” the entire climax was gussied up to a ridiculous level, but it made the true-ish story that much more exhilarating. Real life is never as interesting as the movies no matter how much we’d like it to be. Non-fiction as a film genre never would have survived in Hollywood without exaggeration, just as works of fiction don’t work without elements of real-world truth. “Zero Dark Thirty” is the exception to the “inspired by” rule. It’s aggressively faithful to real events, which results in a bone-dry CIA procedural that made me long for – gasp! – embellishment. Panache. Personality. Any kind of spark, a spark that doesn’t arrive until it’s far too late.

The last 30 minutes of “Zero Dark Thirty” are among the finest of the year, but the first two acts are an absolute slog, worthy of a post-Thanksgiving food coma. Jessica Chastain stars as Maya, a CIA operative who’s devoted her entire post-9/11 career to tracking down Osama bin Laden. Early on (the narrative begins in 2003), she witnesses the brutal interrogation of an al-Qaeda sympathizer at the hands of a fellow CIA employee, Dan (Jason Clarke). We share in her queasiness, but we can’t help but ask – “who is this woman?” It’s a question that’s never answered. Over the course of 150 minutes, we learn next to nothing about Maya. She’s tough, she swears just as much as her male co-workers, and she likes licorice. That’s it. If Kathryn Bigelow (director) and Mark Boal (writer) are suggesting that this manhunt consumed Maya’s entire life, it’s a point well taken, but the characterization of their lead is really poor, intentional or not.

The rest of the cast is rounded out by Kyle Chandler (of “Friday Night Lights” fame) as one of Maya’s co-workers, Jennifer Ehle (“Contagion”) as a fellow agent, Mark Strong (“Sherlock Holmes”) as Maya’s superior (who’s brought in at the halfway point to do a lot of yelling and not much else), and Chris Pratt (“Parks And Recreation”) and Joel Edgerton (“Warrior”) as members of the legendary Seal Team Six. Also included are brief cameos by James Gandolfini, Frank Grillo, and Mark Duplass. The cast does great work considering how thinly their characters are drawn, and the strength of the acting (Chastain included) props up these cardboard cutouts beyond what could be reasonably expected. When the film finally begins to fire in its third act, it’s a testament to these actors that the finale is impactful as it is.

Moviegoers who weren’t excited by 2008’s Bigelow/Boal team-up, “The Hurt Locker,” won’t be converted by the duo’s work here. The minimalist direction works wonderfully during action scenes (few and far between), but it only amplifies the narrative shortcomings and the leisurely pace makes for a pretty sleepy first half. Explosions are so systematically placed that they come across as mere wake-up calls for the audience. When we arrive at the final showdown, it’s clear that there’s not enough time to explore the efforts of Seal Team Six in any meaningful way, despite the film’s claims that they had access to firsthand accounts that haven’t been made public. Luckily, the climax is so well-crafted that everything the picture has done wrong is replaced by what it’s doing right, in that exact moment.

Ultimately, it’s not the fault of Bigelow and Boal that the CIA spent 10 years not catching Osama bin Laden before catching Osama bin Laden. But, the choice to spend so much screen time on futility (not even particularly interesting futility, at that) undermines their yarn of real-life superheroism. One might argue that the pace builds suspense, but when the stakes are evident from the beginning, it’s not good enough to let the story tell itself. The film, as it stands, is undercooked, bordering on shapelessness. The flatness becomes even more evident when the writing loosens up in the third act and Boal introduces some genuinely interesting banter leading up to the final operation. It’s like he wrote the film in reverse, eventually running out of interesting material, and deciding to stop at the beginning. Minimalism is a valid creative choice, but in this case, it renders an extraordinary story very ordinary. And the real-life heroes, flaws and all, were anything but.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Okay)

Release Date: December 19, 2012 (Limited)
Studio: Columbia Pictures (Sony)
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Screenwriter: Mark Boal
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Joel Edgerton, Chris Pratt, Jennifer Ehle, Mark Strong, Kyle Chandler, Edgar Ramirez
MPAA Rating: R (for strong violence including brutal disturbing images, and for language)