Director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal, the Academy Award-winning duo behind The Hurt Locker, bring forth a behind-the-scenes look at the manhunt and assassination of Osama bin Laden in Zero Dark Thirty. It is currently nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Performance by Leading Actress in Jessica Chastain, and Best Writing. Without a doubt, the film revolves around one of the greatest manhunts in history, as well as a huge accomplishment for our country. However, it gets rather dry at times, may be a little drawn out, and comes across as more of a documentary.
For a feature film with a near three-hour running time, ZDT didn’t have enough story depth or events to sustain that length. Maya (Jessica Chastain, Mama) is a CIA agent working with her charismatic partner Dan (Jason Clarke, Lawless) to question detainees with al-Qaeda ties in order to obtain any possible lead on the whereabouts of bin Laden. Much of the first half of the film depicts Dan beating, waterboarding, and humiliating prisoners when they lie or give half truths, and then rewarding them with hummus and figs when they comply. At times brutal and demeaning, the torture scenes really prepare the audience, and Maya, for the long road to completing the mission.
Once she gets a lead, Maya dedicates years of her life around dead ends and unexpected twists in the case in order to complete her objective. The film covers this span of time with poor transitions that take us periodically through key years and days of more questioning, capturing suspects, suicide bombings, assassinations and failed attempts. Much of the time in between major events are filled with work being done in offices, Maya lost in a computer screen typing away, and heated arguments doused with vulgar language and anger. Obviously, these moments are used to stress the toll taken on everyone involved with the hunt; the only problem is they’re not only drawn out, but the main characters are given no background or depth.
Jessica Chastain, who I thought was borderline awful in Mama, gave a stellar performance throughout the entire film. All of her character’s time and energy is put into finding bin Laden, and she expresses it all perfectly. She seamlessly glides along the full arc of emotions from determined and strong-willed, to frustrated and angry, and ends with happiness and relief. As great as her performance is, we really never get any background on Maya. The audience is left to question how she got to this point, why she’s so persistent, and what truly makes her such a strong hero. These questions also apply to her partner Dan.
Dan, like Maya, is just as much of a complex character. He comes across as a merciless agent who enjoys torturing and beating the prisoners he questions. However, it comes to be known it’s just part of the job description and he’d much rather converse with them humanely over lunch. Jason Clarke executes his role extremely well, and the contrast in the perseverance between Dan and Maya becomes clearly evident when he leaves the Middle East to go back to D.C. Other than that, we are given no background or progression in his character either, continuing to produce questions like, ‘Why did he just leave Maya?’, ‘Did he give up?’, ‘Did the questioning of detainees take its toll?’, and ‘What did he take up in D.C. that was more important than finding bin Laden?’ The role of his character seems prominent at first, but towards the end he falls to the wayside for Maya to embrace even more of the spotlight.
The major events, including the epic conclusion of the film, are spectacles to be seen regardless of the misplaced down time between them. Maya finally comes to what she thinks is bin Laden’s hideout in a secret compound, and the amount of intelligence, planning, briefing and trust in Navy S.E.A.L. Team 6 is truly spectacular, as well as the footage of them infiltrating the premises. The last leg of the film is hands down the best piece of the pie, but for the long amount of time you have to wait to get there, it almost doesn’t seem worth it afterwards.
Zero Dark Thirty is thorough and intent on delivering an in-depth account of the events leading up to and including the assassination of Osama bin Laden, yet, it almost feels like they should’ve gone with a full blown documentary approach instead of a feature film. It did seem to lack necessary character building and progression, entertaining transitions between events, and a more focused, concentrated story that could’ve decreased the running time. Looking back, this is going to become and remain a monumental film because of, not only historical value, but the story of persistence and determination in the greatest manhunt of all time.
Look for Bigelow, Boal, Chastain, and Zero Dark Thirty to make noise and possibly take home some Oscars at the 85th Academy Awards this Sunday, Feb. 24, at 7 p.m.
Eight out of 10.