By Andy Ray
“Zero Dark Thirty” is a tight 90-minute thriller about a female CIA officer’s quest to find and kill Osama bin Laden. Unfortunately, this is a 2½-hour marathon of a picture which finally comes to life just as it’s beginning to grow tiresome. The first hour plays like a CIA procedural, and while I’m guessing every interview and every meeting is factual, it doesn’t make for very interesting theatre.
Jessica Chastain plays Maya, a young CIA officer assigned to the US embassy in Pakistan. There she witnesses the continuing torture and interrogation of a detainee with links to Saudi terrorists. When he finally produces a lead, the puzzle pieces begin to fall into place, but it’s a long drawn-out piece of filmmaking to get from point A to point B.
Katherine Bigelow’s previous offering, “The Hurt Locker,” was the surprise Best Picture winner at the 2010 Oscars. This one won’t win, but Jessica Chastain stands an outside chance of picking up Best Actress. She’s soft-spoken yet intense in her singularly-focused quest to bring bin Laden to justice, and Mark Boal’s screenplay allows her to grow into the role, as she progresses from a newbie to a veteran agent. We know nothing of her personal life, however. The script sticks strictly to the work and operation of the CIA. (See if you can say that sentence five times quickly.)
Once Maya and her crew find the compound where bin Laden was hiding prior to his death, “Zero Dark Thirty” finally begins to go somewhere. Her associates’ attempts to trace a phone call, and Maya’s attempts to convince Washington that bin Laden is actually in the compound, provide edge-of-seat excitement. Then we witness the Navy SEALs’ fascinating break-in of the compound, followed by the eventual killing of the mastermind of the 9/11/2001 World Trade Center attacks.
I liked the film’s second half. Much as Ben Affleck did in “Argo,” Bigelow draws suspense from an invasion (that of the Navy SEALs) to which we already know the outcome. We all know Osama bin Laden was killed, but watching the events unfold on the big screen is a thrill. Unlike “Argo,” this picture wastes a lot of time early on. I still recommend seeing it, but don’t feel compelled to walk into the theatre until about an hour has ticked off the clock. If you can’t differentiate among every single Arab terrorist or informant, don’t feel bad. You wouldn’t be able to differentiate them even if you did see the first hour.
Unfortunately, the rap against “Zero Dark Thirty” is that it depicts the United States’ sanctioned torture of Arabs as successfully leading to the capture and killing of Osama bin Laden. That didn’t bother me in the least. First, we know torture was used against those from whom we wanted information, so it’s not as though we’re presented with some important revelation of CIA practices during the Bush administration. In fact, when Barack Obama becomes president, Maya’s co-worker and mentor, Dan, returns to Washington to take a desk job at CIA headquarters, lest he be prosecuted as one involved in systematic torture. Furthermore, most of the useful information gleaned from the captured Arabs is found after the start of the Obama presidency.
What did bother me is that hardly any mention is made of America’s war effort in Afghanistan, which, of course, coincided with the CIA work playing out before us on the screen. It’s as though the war was as foreign to the characters in this film as was the latest Hollywood gossip, or the latest hot new fad back home. I wish more had been made of the uselessness of the Afghan War. What led to the capture & killing of Osama bin Laden was CIA intelligence, not guns and ammo. The raid against bin Laden and his al-Qaeda leadership was waged by a small group of Navy SEALs, not an entire army. The 9/11 tragedy was masterminded by a small group of radicals, and it took a small group of highly-trained specialists to find and capture them.
“Zero Dark Thirty” does a journeyman’s job of presenting a factual account of the inner-workings of the operation which closed the Osama bin Laden chapter of American history. It does nothing to evaluate the U.S. response to the 9/11 attacks, but I guess that’s another movie waiting to be made.