"Zero Dark Thirty" plays out like a TV crime procedural with a bigger budget and loftier aspirations. It almost has the tone of a documentary film, depicting the decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden with little prejudice or embellishment.
What we end up with is something boasting an almost journalistic feel, portraying American national security personnel not as we'd to think they would be, but as they actually are. Which is to say: focused, fallible, and capable of both amazing heroism and gut-churning brutality.
Director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal started to make a movie about the early search for bin Laden after 9/11, but then the terrorist leader was assassinated by U.S. troops in 2011, acting on information painstakingly gathered by the CIA. They quickly retooled to bring a more comprehensive tale, culminating in the high-tension raid on the compound in Pakistan where bin Laden had been living for several years.
I was very impressed with the attention to detail in "Zero Dark Thirty," and its lessons about the sort of warfare our country wages in the 21st century. It's one based not on nuclear missiles or big metal hardware, but tiny slivers of data gathered from thousands of sources. The challenge is less like finding a needle in a haystack than reassembling a mirror smashed into a million shards, without knowing the shape it had before being broken.
The film is not as emotionally engaging as I'd wished. Jessica Chastain does yeoman's work in portraying Maya, the one CIA investigator who does nothing for a decade but hunt bin Laden. The character has no internal motivations or external life beyond getting her man. It's not surprising that Maya is a composite of several real figures, since she has no real identity beyond her mission.
The story skips around in time and place, the first half depicting the early clues to bin Laden's disappearance from Afghanistan, taking us up to 2004. Then the trail goes cold, and the film picks up again four years later, when Maya stumbles across evidence of a high-level bin Laden courier who most of the other intelligence forces believe is already dead. She proves he's alive, and follows him straight to that dusty Pakistani compound.
In fictional movies about spycraft, the agents shown searching for evidence are also the ones who go out into the field and nab the bad guys. Here, it's clearly revealed that the snoops stay mostly behind their desks and have an uneasy relationship with the troops on the front lines. At one point, Maya has to practically beg a field commander to set up a surveillance net on the courier.
In the film's most controversial section, which is right at the beginning, a CIA interrogator named Dan (Jason Clarke, in a chilling performance) is show employing "enhanced" methods against detainees, including waterboarding.
For a film that was accused of being controversial before it even finished production, "Zero Dark Thirty" is steadfastly neutral on the subject of torture. The interrogations are clearly shown as brutal and dehumanizing, and it's hard to watch Americans carrying out these sorts of depraved actions. But the movie is also quite clear in showing how the information obtained in this way was critical to identifying the courier who led us to bin Laden.
Bigelow and Boal do not go in for big ethical quandaries and principled dilemmas, though. Maya, who is present but does not partake in the brutality, is repulsed by it but also does not hesitate to make use of the fruits it produces.
"Zero Dark Thirty" is an effective and expertly made film, but a more character-driven story would've added some flesh to the bones of a great, true story.
-- Christopher Lloyd is co-founder of The Film Yap.