Zero Dark Thirty — the new film by Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker ) — is at once a compelling look behind the closed doors of the CIA as it closed in on Usama Bin Laden, and also a bit of a yawn at its more than 2.5-hour running time. It almost feels like sitting in a theater for the ten years it took to knock off the infamous UBL.
But let's face it: any movie on Bin Laden is going to attract a rabid American audience hungry for vicarious revenge. The only problem facing the filmmaker and screenwriter Mark Boal is that we all know the ending — so how best to keep us in our seats for the first two hours without chomping at the bit for the socko finish?
Unfortunately, at least for this impatient viewer, the setup is so bureaucracy-centered and overtly anti-historical that I was left uninvolved (and angry!) for the opening two acts. The first twenty minutes find CIA-agent Maya (Jessica Chastain) arriving at an undisclosed location to observe a little Torture-American-Style — waterboarding, mild beatings and the like. That such a sequence opens the film makes such "enhanced interrogation" seem more important than it actually was, like it directly led to Bin Laden — which wasn't apparently exactly the case.
But, admittedly, those scenes involving such extreme measures are among Zero Dark 30's most cinematic, aside from the action-packed, final twenty-five minutes. What comes in-between? A lot of inter-agency squabbling, with Ms. Chastain doing her level best to appear tough as a Navy Seal, but coming off a few karate chops short of a black belt killer. Her entire performance — as well as the film in its entirety — often has the surfacey sheen of a TV-movie, not a feature film. It is a mile wide and only inches deep.
Much controversy has been stirred up by Ms. Bigelow's collaboration with CIA folks eager to tell their version of the story, and to deflect criticism of their harsh methods with "detainees." The film doesn't explore such policies and whether they were effective or not — it simply exploits the tragic situation because it is far more pictorial and dramatic to imply that such torture produced clues that led to USB's lair in Pakistan. Which is what makes this film such a cheap-shot exercise — our interest is built-in, so why not take the occasion to illuminate the dark moral corners that gave life to such a scenario?