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Review: Zero Dark Thirty – Not great, but not Islamabad

Posted by on January 4, 2013 – 6:05 pm

Zero Dark Thirty© 2012 Columbia Pictures
Director Kathryn Bigelow’s new film, Zero Dark Thirty, has just barely opened in limited release, but it has already received a slew of critical accolades, including Golden Globe nominations for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actress. To be certain, this is a very fine film and I would also consider it an important movie for its controversial documentation of a historical event, but I definitely wasn’t as wowed by this film as many others have been.

Unless you’ve been hiding in a Tora Bora cave, then you already know that Zero Dark Thirty is about the 10 year search for Osama bin Laden, the mastermind behind the 9/11 terrorist attacks against the United States. The film begins on 9/11/2001, with a dark screen and audio cuts of 911 operators and first responders reacting to the events of that tragic morning. The movie ends with the May 2, 2011 raid on Osama bin Laden’s hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan, where he was killed by members of Seal Team Six (DEVGRU).

Actress Jessica Chastain plays Maya, a CIA Analyst who doggedly tracks the “the world’s most dangerous man” over the course of many years, meticulously piecing together intelligence and following leads until she finally traces bin Laden to his fortified compound in Pakistan. She begins as a quiet unassuming young woman amongst hardened male warriors trying to gather critical information by whatever means necessary; but as her quest progresses she gains unwavering confidence and eventually runs afoul of her superiors who have put bin Laden on the back burner.

Zero Dark Thirty has stirred up controversy in political circles for its portrayal of torture as a means to garner intelligence from captive al Qaeda terrorists. This is a hot button topic that is really out of place for a movie review, but you should know that the CIA brass and many political leaders have questioned the detailed accuracy of this film, while at the same time condemning it for revealing secret interrogation techniques and operations. I don’t know how the movie can be inaccurate while it simultaneously divulges truth – but then I’m not a politician.

Zero Dark Thirty© 2012 Columbia Pictures
War journalist turned screenwriter, Mark Boal, who also teamed with Bigelow on The Hurt Locker, wrote the screenplay for Zero Dark Thirty, and I believe that Boal’s time in the Middle East put him in contact with people who knew the facts behind the search for and killing of bin Laden. I can say that the film’s intense end raid of the bin Laden compound does closely match the story told in No Easy Day, the controversial book that was written by one of the Seal Team members who participated in Operation Neptune Spear that killed the world’s lead terrorist.

Regarding the bin Laden compound raid, this often overly detailed movie never even mentions the extensive rehearsals the Seal Team endured to prepare for the real operation, including the construction and use of a life-size replica of the bin Laden compound. I was shocked that this detail was left completely out of the film.

Setting aside politics and controversies, as a movie Zero Dark Thirty is a very interesting film, but not necessarily the most entertaining. Unless you are a CIA analyst yourself, you are likely to become lost in the maze of details that Maya and her team, which includes actors Jennifer Ehle, Jason Clarke, Mark Duplass (from Safety Not Guaranteed) and Harold Perrineau (from Lost),  have to weed through in order to find bin Laden. After a while I just surrendered all hope of trying to keep the details straight, because I knew where it was all going anyway – but that’s not a pass for the movie’s sometimes convoluted narrative.

Zero Dark Thirty© 2012 Columbia Pictures
Jessica Chastain as Maya delivers a very fine performance that is undoubtedly Oscar worthy and it was great to see Bigelow work with a strong female character again, something she hasn’t really done since 1989’s Blue Steel with Jamie Lee Curtis. Chastain makes Maya’s arc from a shy novice analyst to a bold seasoned veteran completely believable.

The stellar cast of Zero Dark Thirty also includes Joel Edgerton and Chris Pratt as Seal Team members, Kyle Chandler as CIA Station Chief Joseph Bradley and James Gandolfini as CIA Director Leon Panetta.

If you’ve seen The Hurt Locker, then you know that director Bigelow is very capable of setting up edge-of-your-seat action sequences, and there are more than a couple scenes that will have you holding your breath in this new film. Unfortunately there are also a couple of instances when I don’t know what the heck was going on. I don’t want to get into details for fear of ruining something that I simply just didn’t get – but stay sharp – this film runs for 157 minutes and it’s not all nail-biting action.

One has to respect the lives that were lost and the treasure that has been spent in order capture/kill Osama bin Laden, and Zero Dark Thirty is an admirable documentation of those sacrifices – even though I’m sure there will always be those who question its veracity.  I absolutely recommend this movie, but warn you not to get your hopes too high from its excessive critical acclaim. Grade: 7/10

Zero Dark Thirty is currently playing only at the Harkins Scottsdale 101, but opens in wide release on Jan. 11, 2013.