The Deer Hunter premiered in 1978 three years after the Vietnam War. Apocalypse Now followed in 1979. Platoon was released seven years later. Full Metal Jacket appeared after another year. Before cinema can powerfully comment on a key historical moment, a breathing period is necessary, to establish the event’s context, as a link between past patterns and future fluctuations. Who remembers Elia Kazan’s The Visitors (1972)? How about To the Shores of Hell (1966)? People have heard of John Wayne and Ray Kellogg’s The Green Berets (1968), but who likes it?
Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty follows the search for and killing of Usama bin Laden, which closed less than two years ago. Unfortunately, more time for historical perspective would have benefited the picture.
Some will point to Bigelow’s first collaboration with writer Mark Boal, the 2008, Oscar winning The Hurt Locker, as proof that a film can impressively critique current events. They may even go on to say that her latest flick is superior to the former. The Hurt Locker is not really about the Iraq War, though. The conflict is not a key event under inspection, but a circumstance, illustrating organized violence’s terrifying impact, on the human conscience. Zero Dark Thirty is vastly different. It obsesses over shadowy historical details and avoids solemn character thoughts, thus creating another inconsistent, quasi-political/philosophical film, in Hollywood’s ever-growing library of this disappointing genre.
In all fairness, the first and final acts are well executed. Act one introduces Maya (Jessica Chastain), a young, enthusiastic CIA officer, solely focused on tracking Usama bin Laden. For the first time, she leaves her D.C. office for Pakistan, to assist Dan (Jason Clarke), a veteran CIA interrogator (read - torturer). Though Maya is the protagonist, the first act delves into Dan’s warped and violent occupation, which has so mangled his soul that he shows more empathy for pets than people. In a particularly genius piece of writing, Dan classifies his job as “weird” because he has “seen too many naked dudes.” Shoving a man in a box is normal fair, but seeing same-sex genitalia? That’s unacceptable.
From act one, the audience learns that allies are as savage as the enemy. In act three, viewers see how “heroes” sterilize aggression. Once again, Chastain moves to the sidelines, as DEVGRU takes center stage and executes the raid every red-blooded American wants to see. The all too familiar Bourne-style, quick-cut, close-up, shaky-cam is completely absent from the action. The soldiers are cogs in an efficient machine of death. Their aggression is methodical, rote. Emotions like anger and bloodlust are so distant they might as well be nonexistent. The sequence is a marvelous criticism of the romanticized, World War II G.I. that American viewers envision.
Maya’s time seems specifically reserved for act two. Steadfastly, she pursues a lead with the daring mix of science and hunch. Information is compiled, during late night, research binges. Suspects, which earlier were entirely mute, are suddenly questioned with incredible ease. Cell phones are cloned. Signals are stalked. Some cat-versus-mouse unfolds, as the net draws tighter. Anyone familiar with American police procedurals will catch the tropes.
But what about the disgusting torture from act one?
What about the chillingly calm raid from the closing?
While the bookends undoubtedly criticize cloak and dagger, the middle becomes fascinated with the chic of the hunt and forgets the theme. Act two plays like a heist flick, with a human life as the vault-sealed treasure. Maya is the loveable rogue, the applauded bank robber.
However, maybe this is Zero Dark Thirty’s commentary. Maybe the film reveals that when people become entrenched in the sleek chase of a “villain,” they forget that torture gleaned clues, and numb killers will “serve justice”? At best, Zero Dark Thirty is a buried but sharp criticism. At worst, it is inconsistent. Intentionally or accidentally, the picture is first harsh, then merely slick and thrilling, then lightly critical. Consequently, viewers will briefly wonder what to make of that last shot, close on Chastain’s face, as a dark realization passes over Maya. Then, before the credits roll, they will draw conclusions based upon presuppositions, wholly uninformed by the story.
Fortunately, performances carry this film. Clarke and Chastain illustrate a subdued version of the veteran-rookie relationship. Chastain truthfully portrays youthful confusion and uncertainty mixed with voracious intellect and enthusiasm. It is unfortunate that she was not obliged more dedicated screen time. Additional quiet, thoughtful moments, as displayed at the story’s close would have been welcome. Chris Pratt also shines, as DEVGRU operative Justin. Audiences will probably recognize him as Parks and Recreation’s (2009 – present) Andy Dwyer, but Pratt has been branching into dramatic directions since last year’s Moneyball. During the raid, his nonchalance for violence truly leads the sequence’s eeriness.
Even with solid performances, and despite the positives in the first and third acts, the problems beset by act two, along with an overabundance of title cards, as well as a thoughtless, cheap use of 9/11 audio leaves Zero Dark Thirty a weak contender. Of course, maybe I’m just not patriotic enough, to feel engaged by a film dedicated to the homeland’s hunt and killing of Usama bin Laden.
"Zero Dark Thirty" opens January 11, 2013 and is rated R. Action, Drama, Thriller. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow. Written by Mark Boal. Starring Chris Pratt, Jason Clarke, Jessica Chastain, Joel Edgerton.