For ten years the American population had focused all its anger, all its remorse and all its memories of that dreaded day in U.S. history of September 11th 2001 on to one individual, Osama bin Laden. There is not one American who doesn’t know that name, a name that is synominis with the word ‘terrorism’. Every minute he remained free to command his followers was another minute we thought we could be another victim of this mad man. Director Kathryn Bigelow’s new film, “Zero Dark Thirty” is a cold and calculated documentation of the extraordinary lengths our country went to in order to find Osama bin Laden and kill him.
Crafted from a script that was originally supposed to focus on Osama bin Laden’s location just after 9/11 and upon learning of his death was then forged into a script focusing primarily on the hunt and his eventual death, “Zero Dark Thirty” packs one helluva punch. Kathryn Bigelow knows how to direct action better than most male directors who are known only for their action movies, but in recent years she has decided to take on more political stories in place of pure escapism. While her action directing sensibilities still shine brightly in her latest feature, the politics and any real sense of drama are all but lost in the mix as she nails the build up to the eventual raid that concludes the film but forgets that there were real people with real emotions tangled up in this massive hunt for the most wanted man in history.
Spanning the ten years from the moment those planes hit the World Trade Center all the way up to the exact moment Osama bin Laden was found and executed, the film leaves very little room for any sort of real character growth or sense of drama besides the increasingly horrifyingly real depictions of interrogations and the consistent theme of taking a step forward to only take two steps back that eventually takes its toll on just about everyone involved in the man hunt. The closest we ever get to a real character is Maya (Jessica Chastain). Her character is clearly an amalgamation of a group of people that were responsible for leading the cause to find Osama bin Laden, but in the film is depicted as the lone CIA operative we see on the hunt. We see her start out as a rookie and eventually blossom into a full on hard ass and a no nonsense number cruncher.
We see how uncomfortable she is during her eye opening first torture session and then jump forward years at a time as the pieces to the ever growing but thinly veiled road to Osama bin Laden linger in the balance. We see that she soon becomes numb to the shady (and unlawful) tactics employed and even begins conducting them herself after a while. She has one solitary goal in mind, to find Osama bin Laden and kill him, from minute one that is all she is focused on and her attention never waivers. Even when losing close friends or allies during her hunt, she never takes her sights off the prize. We see her struggle with all the loss of life around her, the man hours and extensive amount of time wasted that her exhaustive but necessary investigations have contributed too and as she becomes increasingly volatile towards her superiors we can sympathize with her because we have been there with her all along and suffered as she has.
But there-in lies the biggest issue with “Zero Dark Thirty”, while Maya is a decent enough character to follow through to the end of this needlessly near three hour man hunt, she is never drawn broad enough to ever become a real living breathing person. We become invested in her cause simply because we too want to see Osama answer for his numerous crimes against humanity just as badly as she does, it has little to nothing to do with whether or not we care for her or any of her comrades she has worked with for over ten years. Kathryn Bigelow has constructed a taught, intense and often times exciting procedural on how one of the most wanted men in history was found and killed, but because we never have any characters that we ever connect with on an emotional level, it leaves the entire experience feeling extremely cold and sterile when it should hit on a much more potent emotional level.
Throughout the course of the film we see numerous bombings related to terrorist attacks but they are presented in such a strict and concise manner that their impact is lessened. We jump ahead a year or so and see a bus driving down a London street and within moments it explodes and then we jump forward a couple more years and find two of our main characters talking at a dinner table at some unidentified restaurant when during their conversation there is an explosion and mass chaos ensues, however before we get a chance to register the horror of the incident we are whisked off to another couple years later . These moments should resonate or cause frustration or anger, but instead they come off more as these cold and calculated recreations of these tragic events with no faces to associate with the horror they caused. The lack of any one to truly identify with is a major oversight and a blemish on an otherwise technically flawless film.
As a procedural however, the film works. Acting more as a very loose cliff notes version of what supposedly led up to Osama bin Laden’s death, Bigelow succeeds at providing a film experience like no other. She knows how to move the story along and get the audience pumped up. However unplausible and unlikely it is that one person was responsible for locating Osama as the film suggests, there is no denying the visceral thrill of the hunt as depicted here. All the hoops Maya has to jump through, all the dead ends she comes across and all the obstacles thrown at her by her superiors are enough to make anyone stand up and cheer when she finally gets her way (although one has to question her reckless attitude at times, especially when there are innocent civilians at risk that she seems to care very little about).
By the time her mission is greenlit and you see those choppers lift off the ground it leads into one of the best and most tense action scenes of any film this year. Playing out during the final thirty minutes of the film, we follow the squad of soldiers as they invade Osama bin Laden’s compound. It doesn’t succeed because stuff blows up real good or because of a number of crazy shootouts, it succeeds because of the restraint Bigelow shows. There is no way for a civilian to ever determine how realistic this sequence actually is, but it shows our soldiers as being some badass mofo’s. These guys know their s**t and it is a real treat to see them depicted as true professionals instead of gung-ho jacka**es. Furthermore, it was rather refreshing seeing that their mission doesn’t go as smoothly as one would think and the way the soldiers handle every situation that arises where they stumble a bit is an impressive reminder that we have the best trained soldiers in the world.
“Zero Dark Thirty” is a film filled with great actors, impeccably directed and staged action sequences and a story that while not entirely necessary to visit at this point in history, is still a story that needed to be told. It’s just unfortunate that with all the respect Bigelow shows to the men and women who serve our country, she forgot the most important people of all…us. With no real emotional center or core supporting the political bits, it takes this historic event and belittles it by sucking out all the emotion that went hand in hand and fueled such a large scale man hunt as this. As you watch it, you will undoubtedly get sucked up into the intrigue that led to Osama bin Laden’s death, but you will also undoubtedly walk away from it feeling cold and distant, just like Maya does.