Kathryn Bigelow has been in the movie biz for more than 25 years, but it wasn’t until 2009 that she was recognized for her talent, winning the Academy Award for Best Director for The Hurt Locker. While The Hurt Locker is more or less an original story, Bigelow’s latest film Zero Dark Thirty is purported to be based on factual account of the take down of Osama bin Laden.
The film opens with a black screen that lists the date: September 11, 2001. There are no images, just (hopefully fictional) recordings of 911 calls from the planes and World Trade Center towers. A chilling opening to say the least. We then move to 2003 and are introduced to Maya (Jessica Chastain), who is reportedly based off of an unnamed CIA agent currently undercover. Maya is introduced to the military tactics and treatment of terrorist prisoners, which involves several forms of torture, including waterboarding. Maya is depicted as a tireless crusader who focuses on little else than the hunt for bin Laden. Over the next several years, we see the events of the War on Terror through Maya’s perspective, including the 2008 Islamabad Marriott Hotel Bombing and the 2009 attack on Camp Chapman. Maya believes that the key to finding bin Laden is by identifying and finding his main courier. We then go through a series of “we found him,” “oh no he’s dead” and “oh wait it was a case of mistaken identity!” until the CIA identifies said courier, Abu Ahmed (how’s that for originality?) They trace Ahmed to a compound where Maya believes Osama is hiding. After a lot of official CIA rigamarole involving Tony Soprano, the President green-lights the operation to infiltrate the compound in Abbottabod, Pakistan. Spoiler alert: they kill Osama bin Laden.
I’m always a little skeptical when it comes to films that are based off of real-life events that happened within the past few years (I still haven’t seen nor do I intend to see either of the movies about September 11th.) Bigelow herself recently said on The Colbert Report that this will be the “first rough cut of history.” But I am not here to right the wrongs for future generations, nay I am here to judge a two and a half hour onscreen narrative! It is hard to see the character of Maya as anything new. The character of the strong, underestimated female CIA agent has been done before, in Alias and most recently with Claire Danes in Homeland. I am by no means saying that there is only one female archetype, but the story (and/or history) frames Maya as the old “speculative agent whose superior officers think is crazy until inevitably they don’t” type of hero. Chastain is a great actress and does well in a role that otherwise is a little stale. The last half hour or so of the film deals with the infiltration and assault on the Abbottabod compound. After a surprisingly bombastic arrival, we creep around unfamiliar corners with the members of Seal Team Six. This is the most tense and exciting part of the film, unfortunately they are kind of shoe-horned in at the end, and we don’t really get to know them that well. The main problem with Zero Dark Thirty is that it is trying to paint a picture of the entire process of the hunt for Osama bin Laden. And unfortunately that involves a lot of boring bureaucracy. Which in a way, is a form of cinematic waterboarding.
Final Grade: ★★★½ 3.5/5