Zero Dark Thirty, regardless of its quality, was going to be greeted with multiple awards nominations. It had a great cast headlined by the underappreciated Jessica Chastain, a director perhaps most famous for her Oscar win for 2008’s The Hurt Locker and it’s about a recent true story, a pivotal moment in our nation’s history when we took out the man who harmed us on 9/11, Osama Bin Laden. Awards voters and movie critics eat things like that up, but like many of this year’s movies, Zero Dark Thirty fails to resonate. It’s too long to thrill, too dry to grab attention and it’s practically emotionless, aside from one final scene that doesn’t fit in with what is essentially a clinical procedural of the events that led to Bin Laden’s death. From the first torture scene where a tiny bit of information is gathered to the final confrontation, Zero Dark Thirty is strict in its structure. The events as played out in the film are still fascinating as we watch that tiny bit of information snowball into something bigger and bigger, but it doesn’t hit any profound sentiment like The Hurt Locker did, or even take sides on the bigger issues as a whole. It simply moves along, showing you how the events (likely) played out and then it ends and you’re no better or worse for it.
Still, as far as emotionally empty and narratively bland procedurals go, Zero Dark Thirty is as good as they come and, in a way, the fact that it doesn’t take sides on key issues like torture works to its advantage. Although I’ve heard arguments from both sides, some even going so far as to say the film actually promotes torture (a somewhat reasonable conclusion to make given that the excessive and humiliating torture that poor man receives at the beginning of the movie eventually leads to a successful mission of killing Bin Laden), it’s fairly neutral. For example, it doesn’t treat torture as something evil or good, but rather simply as something that was used by our government to extract information. It shows it because it happened, not because it’s trying to make a statement on it.
But then again, that’s why Zero Dark Thirty comes off so much like a procedural. It rarely, if ever, has anything to say regarding, well, anything. It doesn’t touch on the fear that gripped our nation after the attacks. It ignores the high running emotions that led us to war in the first place. It doesn’t talk about the effects this dangerous search had on those running it. Although I’m sure the plans were carried out with a high degree of professionalism in the real world, emotional ambiguity doesn’t make for a very good movie. The Hurt Locker, for instance, was about the effects of war on the soldiers who fight it. It was about their trauma, their fear and even their familiarity with it, to the point where some felt more comfortable with a gun overseas than in a time of peace on their homeland. Zero Dark Thirty has none of that.
If it’s about anything, it’s about obsession, the need to right the wrong. Chastain, playing Maya, the woman in relentless pursuit of the man who spilled innocent American blood, is fantastic in the role and manages to pull off some tense dialogue driven scenes that ramp up her character’s emotions, even if ours remain distant. Where Zero Dark Thirty works, though, despite Chastain’s excellent performance, isn’t in the character arcs, but rather in the narrative trajectory that begins with that aforementioned interrogation of a low level Al Qaeda subordinate and ends with a spellbinding interpretation of the Navy SEALs operation that took Bin Laden out.
Regardless of its procedural approach, it works because it’s not exploitative. It doesn’t show behind-the-scenes “what ifs” of what Bin Laden may have been doing. Similarly, not once does the film feel like a piece of propaganda the way this year’s Act of Valor did. It’s not trying to get anyone to join the armed forces or even make you feel a certain way. It’s simply showing you something that happened and you take it as it is. The strength of such conviction is evident, but then again, so is the weakness. For a movie that dramatizes the death of an undeniably evil man who killed innocent people, leading to one of the very few times everybody in America stood together as one, there needed to be more of an audience connection. The emotion, both onscreen and within ourselves, should have resonated, but instead you leave the movie with an empty feeling, knowing full well the movie you saw was good, but wanting something more. Zero Dark Thirty is bound to win Best Picture at this year’s Oscars and though I will certainly defend it as a good movie, I’ll argue against that inevitable decision.
Zero Dark Thirty receives 3.5/5