Every year when we enter the ‘film award season,’ I come across films that question my viewing sensibilities. I ask myself if being well-made, showing ambition and having a great cast makes up a great movie? I can’t think of a recent film more worthy of this question than Zero Dark Thirty, a movie that has a lot on its mind but doesn’t seem to know how the hell to say it in an accessible or cinematic way.
The plot deals with the overwhelming burden America had of finding Middle Eastern terrorist Osama bin Laden after 9/11. We start the story in 2003 and end with the raid on May 1, 2011 that took the life of bin Laden. Our protagonist – and suitable audience surrogate – is Maya (the beautiful and talented Jessica Chastain), an operative who ultimately becomes the person who finds bin Laden. We learn pretty early on just how brutal this reality is. When you become this type of operative, you have two options: get a desk job or die. It’s that simple. Everyone makes a move on a massive chess board – and Maya is in the unfortunate position of taking the reins. It surely doesn’t help being a woman in a man’s world.
Having already shown a penchant for stories that deal with how war affects the psyche in the amazingly character-driven The Hurt Locker, Director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal team up again for what is possibly the most ambitious modern film of its type. Telling the true story of the decade-long search and discovery of Osama bin Laden is an impossibly large undertaking for anyone and I understand it’s not easily adapted as a cinematic form of fiction. But the film ultimately doesn’t feel cinematic at all most of the time. They had the pieces necessary, but the film loses itself in the sea of its own ambition and drowns us in perpetual boredom.
Maya’s character arc is perhaps the one aspect of the film where they got it totally right. We meet her in 2003 as we watch a black site soldier psychologically and physically torture the crap out of a Saudi detainee who’s the relative of a high-ranking terrorist. Maya is fittingly disturbed by the whole process – as are we. But as we progress, we see her become hardened and transform from the disturbed rookie into the agency relic who won’t stop chasing ghosts. Her character is inherently one of the better female lead roles in years – just in how unstoppable she is. It’s easy to lose oneself to a cause, and Maya is consumed by her cause just as much as the men she hunts down. Even when the political world around her changes radically (from Bush to Obama), she’s never willing to back down.
Unfortunately, rooting for Maya’s success wasn’t enough of a drive to make most of this movie work for me. I believe whether you like this movie or not revolves around how much Maya’s quest resonates with you. Osama bin Laden himself is almost a maguffin that allows us to watch Maya fight through the political world of the Middle East and America to achieve her goal. If you aren’t fully behind her, you’re not going to care.
The only portion of the film I felt even remotely interested in was the final 40 minutes. That’s out of a 157-minute runtime. It’s like watching a documentary that takes two full hours to remember that it’s a film and begin ACTING like one. Suddenly, it’s not random scenes with people talking in mission jargon anymore. We actually have characters doing something. The third act is interesting, but it becomes a too-little, too-late situation. I just didn’t care anymore.
Maybe I’m not the best audience for this film. I didn’t like 2011’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, either – which I consider very similar to Zero Dark Thirty. Both rely on ludicrously long stretches of exposition and hope that we’ll evaluate such scenes as character-building moments of intrigue. Both use stellar actors for roles where there’s nothing showy or intriguing about them. Both mistakenly believe that the history is so fascinating that we don’t need anything else to stay in our seats. Well, I found Zero Dark Thirty to be woefully indulgent, banal and frustrating. Even my national pride couldn’t get me behind this behemoth that had nowhere to go. I was bored more often than any other emotion.
I almost feel cheated. So many scenes are filled to the brim with nothing with characters tossing out jargon-filled tidbits of dialogue at one another that it feels too much like a PBS special. There’s the occasional suspenseful explosion every half hour or so, which makes me wonder if the film was trying to make up for its dialogue-heavy indulgences with lazy audience-friendly conflict. But considering how much of the film is without real cinematic conflict, it doesn’t matter much in the end. There’s just not enough.
So let’s return to the opening question. Does having ambition make a great movie? Does being directed flawlessly and having outstanding cinematography make a great movie? Does a great cast make a great movie? No. I don’t think so. It’s all about the script. If the script is off and doesn’t know where it’s going or why it’s going there, it doesn’t matter if your director is Stanley Kubrick and your star is Humphrey Bogart: the film is going to flounder.
It’s odd considering how strong and memorable Bigelow and Boal made the emotional stakes in The Hurt Locker. I never once felt as strongly for a ZD30 character as I did for Jeremy Renner’s William James. The Hurt Locker is a superior film, both in establishing better characters and making the story carry some weight we can get behind.
As it is, Zero Dark Thirty is a curious little oddity that does having an inherently interesting tale – that is, one that’s buried amid the unnecessarily verbose trimmings Bigelow and Boal hid a massive bulk of the movie under. The ridiculous length, the lack of emotional weight, and the documentary-like banality make Zero Dark Thirty two things no film wants to be: a very tough film to get through and a shadow of what its premise promised us.
In Theaters: January 11, 2013
Runtime: 2 hours 37 minutes
Rating: R (for strong violence including brutal disturbing images, and for language)
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Cast: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Joel Edgerton, Mark Strong
Genre: Thriller, Action/Adventure, Drama
Distributor: Sony Pictures
Official Site: http://www.zerodarkthirty-movie.com