Kathryn Bigelow is the finest action director of her era. Her films pulsate with nervous tension, filled with claustrophobic set-pieces. But those action sequences are so vibrantly portrayed that her films seem to lose their center when forced to shift into the more personal dynamics of plot and character. That abrupt emotional shift plagued the spotty second half of her last film, 2009’s Best Picture winner The Hurt Locker, and causes her latest film, Zero Dark Thirty, to waver between a gripping exploration of the war on terror and a cliché-packed Hollywood action drama.
Zero Dark Thirty centers on CIA agent Maya (Jessica Chastain) and her decade-long hunt for terrorist mastermind Osama Bin Laden. Bigelow, along with co-writer Mark Boal, has decided to encapsulate the entire history of America’s complicated, messy war on terror into the story of one woman and her journey from a terrified rookie who shies away from the grim realities of extraordinary rendition to a steely veteran whose single-minded determination causes a reluctant agency to take action on her hunch. As such, the central plot of the film is surprisingly formulaic. Remove the political overtones and the film would be no different at its core from any other rogue cop versus an unyielding system.
For that kind of storytelling shortcut to work, the actor in that lead role must give a performance so strong that you care more for their character’s struggle than the weighty details of history. Unfortunately Jessica Chastain isn’t quite up to the task.
After a 2011 in which she appeared in high-profile supporting roles in The Tree of Life and The Help (a role for which she was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress), this film is Chastain’s breakout ticket to super-stardom. As Maya becomes the brassy voice of conscience in the agency, Chastain gets to play the sort of emotional range that lead actresses dream of, but her deliveries fall flat. Chastain may not be the best actress, but she is unquestionably a movie star. She has true presence on screen, but not enough emotional heft to carry such a complicated, often unfocused, story.
The supporting performances, from such eclectic players as Kyle Chandler, James Gandolfini, and Mark Duplass, are uniformly excellent, especially in the film’s harrowing torture sequences. Jason Clarke brings a charismatic soulfulness to his portrayal of Dan, the CIA field agent in charge of the extraordinary rendition techniques, and Reda Kateb is phenomenal as Ammar, the man whose torture yields the crucial information about Bin Laden’s courier that Maya chases for the next ten years.
The film was in production for several years, and had to be changed in the wake of Bin Laden’s death in May of 2011. Bigelow incorporates the raid on Bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound in a twenty-minute segment that focuses solely on the Seal Team Six crew that carried out the mission. The mission itself is presented in the illusion of real-time, a technique that saps much of the tension from the sequence. The mission is carried out with such brutal efficiency that there is no real tension in the scenes. The soldiers stalk from room to room, finding mostly dead ends until they come upon and kill Bin Laden. That the scene is such an anti-climactic one is a powerful statement in itself. But once that moment is done we’re back to wrap up Maya’s story, and we’ve been out of it so long that her resolution feels much less interesting than what we’ve just witnessed.
The respectful attention to detail in the raid scenes makes the casual disregard for the details of the source of the lead all the more glaring. Whether Bigelow and Boal made the change to streamline their film’s story or to highlight their own political viewpoint, it presents the view that torture was not just a part of the CIA’s arsenal, but their most effective weapon. In one scene, then-Senator Barack Obama appears in footage from a 60 Minutes interview in which he states that torture was not part of America’s ideals, a statement which causes Maya and her crew to roll their eyes.
In warping history to the political bent of its maker, Zero Dark Thirty becomes akin to Oliver Stone’s JFK, a slick bit of entertainment with an ugly agenda at its core. And now, just as there is a generation of filmgoers who believe that John F. Kennedy was killed by homosexuals with backwards toupees and bushy caterpillar eyebrows we will have to contend with those who are convinced that the trail that led to Osama Bin Laden began with wrapping a cloth around a man’s head and pouring water over his face.
But this is only so disappointing because Zero Dark Thirty is such a well-made, engrossing film. Bigelow draws you into a hyper-realistic, horrific world, while at the same time causing you to question its accuracy.