When the Oscar nominations were announced, many felt that the exclusion of Kathryn Bigelow, Academy Award-winning director of The Hurt Locker, was a particularly large snub. Having now seen Zero Dark Thirty, Bigelow being nominated would have been a pretty drastic misstep on the part of the Academy. While it certainly isn’t a bad film, Zero Dark Thirty isn’t necessarily a great one either, which is a disappointment from this director coming off of an incredible job on The Hurt Locker. The fact that the film is topping many “best of 2012” lists is equally baffling. Despite the even pacing, some great production design, and a phenomenal performance by Jessica Chastain, “the greatest manhunt in history” ends up being little more than a whimper when it should really, really be a bang.
Starring as CIA agent Maya, Jessica Chastain absolutely commands on-screen, leading the manhunt to capture public enemy # 1, Osama bin Laden, beginning in 2003 up to his eventual capture and killing in 2011. Make no mistake, despite some really interesting casting choices (wonderful to see Mark Duplass in a supporting role), this movie belongs 100% to Chastain. She owns every second of screentime that she gets in this film, her performance quiet, strong, and dedicated, her mind set ultimately on one goal: finding bin Laden. Her performance is subdued and restrained outside of the few moments that it need not be, and in all of them she shines.
Sadly, however, Chastain’s performance is the only thing about Zero Dark Thirty that is subdued. Based on true events, far too many elements of the film seem to be just a touch too dramatized, to the point where they become detrimental to the film. The multiple torture sequences become difficult to watch after a time, and too many scenes of following and tracking and analyzing seem to go on for a bit too long. Perhaps this was Bigelow’s intention, to infuse the audience with the same kind of despair and hopelessness that Maya had felt about the mission to find bin Laden, and to express that it was about much more than the final action-packed raid on the compound. This is lost in the translation, however, and despite the film’s even pace, it really just seemed to… keep going on and on. Don’t mistake this, however, for a cry for more action- the film doesn’t have much, and doesn’t need or want for more. It is the failure on Bigelow’s part to keep the interest, the tension, and the intrigue going through the runtime that is, ultimately, the film’s weakest point.
This film did not need to be 2-1/2 hours long, and it feels like it’s every bit that long and then some. It wasn’t exciting, thrilling, or engaging; it is stuffy, over-long, bureaucratic, and boring. It was all very interesting to watch, of course, and it has glimmers of greatness within it, but too much of the film is spent watching characters stand around, look around, or wander around. Again, this could’ve been intentional, but if it was, it begs the question: “Why?” The film is so well-shot, its production design, sets, costumes, and atmosphere so masterfully realized, that it is criminal that this environment doesn’t yield anything that, in the end, is really worth watching. The nuts and bolts of the hunt for bin Laden are so complex and wide-sweeping and Bigelow does a good job of exploring this macrocosm in detail. Why isn’t it more interesting to actually watch it?
In this light, it isn’t difficult to see why Kathryn Bigelow wasn’t nominated. The bigger mystery for Oscar devotees might be how on Earth this film was nominated for best picture in the first place because it certainly isn’t, and it more than certainly shouldn’t win. Outside of Maya, all of its characters exist only on the periphery of her mission to find bin Laden; the audience learns nothing about any of them, and most of them are flat and one-dimensional. Living, breathing characters drive the narrative of any good story, and this film suffers for lack of them. Having directed The Hurt Locker, Bigelow and screenwriter/producer Mark Boal are no stranger to this, so it is all the more surprising to see them fall so drastically short. Maya, as she is written, isn’t a very compelling character either- it is Chastain’s effortless performance that elevates her to something more, but without her it’d be hard to find anything very redeemable about the film at all.
In spite of all of this, however, the film is not a bad film, and is certainly not a poorly made film. Rather, it just seems that Bigelow chose an odd direction to tell her story, and it just isn’t very entertaining to watch. Its marketing is strangely telling of the misshapen structure of the narrative; few trailers for films are so off-putting and boring as is the feature trailer for Zero Dark Thirty. It doesn’t even look like a film someone would want to go see. Everything rests on the premise that this film depicts the capture and death of Osama bin Laden, but it lacks any sort of substance, tension, or depth. When the audience already knows the ending, the purpose of the film then should be to make the journey to that destination something engaging and intriguing- Zero Dark Thirty, however, seems to be looking at its watch, wondering when it will ever get around to it. Three out of Five Stars.
By Nicholas Haskins
I can’t help but wonder why I never saw this trailer for Zero Dark Thirty instead, because at least it makes it look like an interesting film. If you’re a fan of my reviews please subscribe to them and share them; your support means everything to me! You can also become a fanboy/girl and follow me on Twitter or book my face.