Zero Dark Thirty is a movie with an identity crisis. It half wants to be a thriller in the vein of Argo or the Hurt Locker, and half wants to be a documentary about the capture of Osama Bin Laden. These two halves don’t really work that well together, and what’s left is a movie that consists largely of CIA people spying on people with cameras and satellites, men getting tortured, and people in suits arguing about what to do next.
I appreciate what Mark Boal and Kathryn Bigelow were going for here, but this movie falls a little short. It’s the sort of film that feels immediate and compelling right now, just months after Bin Laden’s death; in a few years, it’ll already feel outdated. It’s not built to stand the test of time, because aside from the novelty of discovering exactly what went down that fateful night when BinLaden met his end, there’s not a whole lot this movie has going for it.
I don’t mean to say that it’s badly made, because it’s not. It’s got strong technical work behind it. I only mean to say that as a story, it has some serious problems, not the least of which being that there aren’t really any characters to latch onto. There are only two people that have anything to do, or any characters to play, in this movie. The first is the protagonist, Maya, played with a quiet intensity by Jessica Chastain. She gives us the sense of a socially awkward, driven woman who has given up everything to hunt for Bin Laden. She’s the movie’s emotional heart and its saving grace. Unfortunately, she’s only in about two-thirds of the movie, being notably absent from Zero Dark Thirty’s climax. That climax involves a team of soldiers we’ve never met before, know nothing about, and don’t care about. The second character is played by Dan Clarke—a CIA operative who specializes in torture but is also troubled by what he does. He falls out of the movie after about the first forty-five minutes and is rarely heard from again.
The rest of the “characters” are just blustering soldiers, grumpy CIA officials in suits, and terrorists detainees whose only role is to moan as they are tortured. There’s too much about computers and tracking and cell phones in this movie, and not enough about human emotion. Which begs the question: why not make a documentary instead? It’s the human drama that makes movies movies, and stripped of that drama, Zero Dark Thirty plays like a thriller that is less than thrilling. It’s not go enough action to subsist as an action thriller, it’s not got enough dialogue (technical and military jargon excluded) to be interesting on a human level. The last scene, as soldiers storm Osama’s compound, is beautifully crafted and executed; you only wish you cared a little more about all the faceless, nameless soldiers involved. Characters fall into and out of Zero Dark Thirty without rhyme or reason, making it impossible to latch on to anyone but Chastain. And since Chastain is the only character we care about, why do we need to see Mark Strong and Stannis Baratheon (I mean Stephen Dillane) have a pissing contest in a hallway? Why do we need to see a group of operatives track down man by his cell phone and get into a tense confrontation with some Pakistani motorcyclists?
None of these characters will be seen or heard from again.
Zero Dark Thirty is not a bad film if you want to learn about BinLaden’s capture (assuming it’s accurate. Otherwise, it becomes very problematic). My only point is that if this wasn’t about something so serious and relevant, if it were being examined purely on the basis of its story, it would not be under consideration for Best Picture of the year. As a work of cinema, it’s skillfully put together, and it is interesting to watch. It’s good, but it’s not great.