January 21, 2013 by CINEfaction Movie Review.
Zero Dark Thirty is the new movie from Hurt Locker director Kathryn Bigelow who has enjoyed a rich and varied career to date which will surely now be swamped under the weight of opinion lumped on this picture. She is a highly adept film-maker and the aforementioned Hurt Locker might just be the finest example of a war movie since Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket. Zero Dark Thirty is a different beast altogether. It is a fact-based account of the events leading up to the killing of Osama Bin Laden. Its a touchy subject which is largely handled with great care and aplomb by the cast and film-makers. Thats not to say the movie is perfect, its actually far from it.
The movie is talky without being overly analytical or detailed. I learned nothing from the 157 minute runtime that i couldn’t find out in 20 minutes on the web, but maybe that’s the point. The word chronicle is often bounded around when talking about Zero Dark Thirty. Chronicle is defined as ‘A factual written account of important or historical events in the order of their occurrence’ and thats precisely what the film is and not a touch more. There is no meat offered to the viewer by way of engaging character or story development, indeed, the film is mostly an anti-cinematic experience aside from the last 20 or so minutes.
An interesting counter point is the popular ‘Homeland’ show which also charts a driven female CIA agent as she tracks a known and dangerous terrorist. Its true that both works have completely different end-games but it is interesting to note just how far removed the two are. Homeland is purely for entertainment purposes and Zero Dark Thirty strives to be factual and relevant. I would argue that Zero Dark Thirty could have never ‘won’, can you really expect to make a piece of solid entertainment about tracking and killing Osama Bin Laden? The answer is no. They would have been surely lambasted for glorifying a potentially inflammatory event (please see Oliver Stone’s dreadful ‘World Trade Center’). Therefore, we are left with this glossy, extremely well made, pseudo-documentary which is never particularly involving or like-able.
Also with all due respect, Chastain can count herself very lucky to have just been nominated for best actress. She was surely a shoe-in for the Oscar nod for just turning up here as the film lends itself, due to its ‘factual’ nature, to receiving the adoration of the academy. Her performance, much like the film, barely exists but to prop up and relay the events. She cries when people die and she is cast iron in the face of a male dominated, scary world but she is barely a character in her own right. Yeah sure, she is driven and devoted but she also cold and oddly unlikable. People aren’t talking about Maya’s dominance of the screen, they are talking about the half-truisms of the events themselves. I’m not asking for any meaningful superfluous back story or exposition but i wanted to see her out of the situation, if just for a few minutes. I understand however, that this isn’t that kind of movie, this isn’t Michael Bay’s Zero Dark Thirty. Trust me, i’m glad that Hollywood learnt its lesson from the sorry sack of shit that was, Pearl Harbor, nobody wants to see that happen again. Zero Dark Thirty is, at its heart, intelligent and challenging film making not simple cinematic fluff. Still, as an audience we need to know the characters aside from the heated scenes of padded exposition.
Don’t get me wrong, Chastain does nothing wrong here, she is always believable and great to watch. Its more a problem with the writing or maybe just with the style of movie they were trying to make that breaks her for me. Another interesting counter-point is Ben Affleck’s excellent Argo. Here we have a movie based on some pretty harrowing true events but its handled with a cinematic eye. Ok, its true that Affleck takes some liberties with the truth in Argo but what he does make is a piece of cinema that excites the audience. You are completely immersed in the events, you care for the film’s cowering characters and perhaps more importantly, Argo stays with you after the fact. I felt nothing at Zero Dark Thirty’s conclusion, even when watching Chastain cry, i didn’t appreciate the action or care. I didn’t feel anything for her character, i knew her about as well as i did the tortured terrorists.
I think my main problem was with the point of the whole exercise. Its a film that sits on the fence, never glorifies or revels nor does it offer any comment or any real insight. It plays like a high budget, turbo speed news re-enactment. So what then was the point? Do we really live in a world where is it necessary to make a film about every important event in history? How is this any different to watching a fluffy news story? Do we really need attractive people on the silver screen for people to give a sh*t about whats going on in the world? I hope not.
All of that being said, Zero Dark Thirty is never an exercise in patience, it rumbles along at a steady pace and if all your looking for is a chronicle of events post 9/11 you’ll find a lot to be interested in. I just cant shake the question, what was the point?