As an account of an event, Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty (2012) is thorough and complete. As a portrait of a person, however, it’s lacking. It tells the story of the mission to find and kill Osama Bin Laden, and it starts from September 11, 2001, and hits a decade’s worth of leads in the chase until the man is lying lifeless on a bedroom floor. The mission is mesmerizing and captivating, as is its single-minded leader, Maya (Jessica Chastain), but she remains less illustrated and the film suffers for it.
In Bigelow’s strongest movies, such as The Hurt Locker (2008) and the goofy but compelling Point Break (1991), she draws a line between extreme behavior and troubled or criminal psychosis. The gang in Point Break was a bunch of adrenaline junkies and so they naturally fell into bank robbery. The Hurt Locker’s William James was drawn to his job as a military bomb diffuser because he was alive only when his life was on the line, complicating his sense of being when it wasn’t. Though gripping throughout, that commitment to defining motivation is missing in Zero Dark Thirty. We see that Maya is a dogged pursuer but we don’t know why. There’s a scene when her superior says that Bin Laden is no longer the top target and she shouts him down about how Bin Laden is the only thing that matters. It’s passionate but it doesn’t persuade. She admits herself that in 10 years with the CIA she’s done nothing else but hunt Bin Laden. This is a choice she makes and the movie makes a choice to deny us its theory on why that is, even commenting on that. “Do you know why we recruited you out of high school?” she’s asked by an intelligence chief. “I don’t believe I’m allowed to answer that, sir,” she responds. The movie is allowed; it just doesn’t.
I was reminded of a similar frustration I had with Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar (2011), which wasn’t a fraction as gripping as Zero Dark Thirty, but it did give out a lot of historical information circling around a single character, then denied to reveal what it thought about him. I learned a lot about what a person did but not about who he was. The same problem is present here. It’s not a must that a movie define the motivations of its central character (how could anyone explain Daniel Plainview, for example, in Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood ?), but Bigelow’s strength is in using what’s happening around them to colors her characters’ psyches, but we don’t get any insight into Maya at all. We might not know what hell created him, but we do know exactly how Anderson feels about Plainview. One of the great aspects of Zero Dark Thirty is that Bigelow also plays her thoughts on the frenzied hunt for Bin Laden and the unseemly aspects of special forces trade-craft in general very close to her chest so the raison d’être for the central character is doubly needed. Bigelow’s handling of the material is successfully troubling, forcing us to throw out our idea of G.I. heroism by showing the real consequences of military action in civilian populations. A strongly drawn central character would give the ambiguity about the mission more punch; leaving them both in the air divides our attention.
This isn’t a complaint about Chastain, who plays the one note powerfully, but there’s still just the one note to be played. It’s also not a poison pill for the movie, which is engrossing, especially in its last hour when itchronicles the discovery of what is believed to be Bin Laden’s hideout, the speculative argument to raid it or not, and the final raid, which achieves a masterful tension despite the entire audience knowing the outcome beforehand. Here the movie sizzles, thanks in no small part to Chastain’s dogged intensity and excellent contributions from CIA heads played by Mark Strong and James Gandolfini and the grunts on the ground led by Joel Edgerton and Chris Pratt. The problem is that the first 90 minutes is spent on repetitive or inconsequential details of the first six or seven years of the search when they could be better served by giving us more insight into Maya. I pined for more scenes like the one between Maya and a young operative who gushes that Maya is her inspiration and asks to share coffee with her hero. Maya coldly spurns the wide-eyed recruit, better she learn now that this job is about focus and not friendship and, as Maya had already learned at that point, your friends don’t always make it back. Instead, these moments are tiny islands in a sea of torture scenes and dead ends. The scenes of torture are brutal and gratuitous. I reject the notion that the movie condones them, because it’s hard not to empathize with the victims, terrorists they may be, and besides, the movie hardly argues that such tactics are effective. Maya and her team rarely get the information they need that way. That message is delivered quickly, but we are subjected to more lessons than we need.
Mark Boal, who wrote the screenplay, deserves the bulk of the blame for the movie’s deficiencies, but he also earns a hearty applause for making a compact and intelligible story based on hearsay and rumors of classified information about an event that took place fewer than two years ago. It’s a wonderful job of living filmmaking, and if there are a few eggshells in the omelet, they can be forgiven.
Still, it’s hard to fight the feeling that if the filmmakers had resisted a desire to write history with lightning and had taken more time to sculpt the film, we could be looking at a masterpiece and not just a very good thriller.
It’s unfair to judge a movie for what it’s not, but I don’t understand this TV-movie desire to provide ripped-from-the-headlines stories in the theater. The same malaise undercut Oliver Stone’s could’ve-been-greatW (2008), which gave up perspective to be first. Still, Zero Dark Thirty is a terrific thriller: technically stunning and intellectually challenging, if emotionally unsatisfying.