And here’s yet another review of a really long movie. I don’t why this Oscar season has been so rife with movies that seem intent on testing audiences’ patience. Maybe it’s a reaction to TV’s ever-evolving ability to tell such expansive and complex stories, and this has in many ways felt like a year where Hollywood films have stepped up their game in response to what’s being done on the small screen. Whatever it is, Zero Dark Thirty rightfully earns it’s 157 minute running time with an approach that recalls the lengthy search for Osama Bin Laden with meticulous detail, and at the same time is uniformly riveting from beginning to end.
The film uses 9/11 as a jumping off point, as this story basically picks up two years later, where we follow Maya (Jessica Chastain), a C.I.A. operative who’s been brought to the Middle East as another able mind with the intention of tracking down the most wanted man in America. Torture is really the first tactic we see in getting information about bin Laden’s whereabouts, but it’s really just one of many ways in which these characters use every little bit of information or intelligence to scrounge together a lead in the hopes of finding the man. As the manhunt continues for another eight years, we see C.I.A. members come and go, people whose lives are lost, and an overall feeling of hopelessness, despite Maya’s unwillingness to deter from her single-minded objective. Of course, eventually she stumbles upon the compound at which bin Laden is hiding in 2011 (which isn’t really explained how, because I guess some information is just too classified) and the rest, as they say is history.
I think some stories are so fascinating that they don’t need a great deal of inflection or filmmaking pizazz to make that story enthralling. Another film that brilliantly chronicles a fascinating moment in American history with a very straightforward approach is All The President’s Men, which I couldn’t help but think of while watching Zero Dark Thirty. Unlike All The President’s Men, I can’t really be sure how much of Zero Dark Thirty is based in truth since the C.I.A. obviously wasn’t going to be careless in what details it revealed to screenwriter Mark Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow. But this feels like a film that strives to do justice to the truth, and because of that it feels like a hard-hitting reminder of what it was like to live through that turbulent decade in the aftermath of 9/11.
I found the tone and morally ambiguities of the film to be about pitch perfect. There’s been a lot made of the fact that the film glorifies torture, which it does not at all. In fact it explicitly acknowledges the questionable nature in which torture was used, and yet how the American people where sometimes led to believe that America was too good to get itself involved in that kind of brutality. But those were the crazy times we were living in, and desperate times often call for desperate measures. There really aren’t any cut-and-dry answers at the heart of Zero Dark Thirty, as it’s all a mish-mash of conflicted feelings in the wake of the underlying question of “We killed bin Laden, but at what cost?”. And even after a superbly tense reenactment of Seal Team 6’s infiltration of the compound, we’re still left with that lingering question, in a brilliant last shot that sums up the film’s conflicted nature.
The only real complaint I can make about Zero Dark Thirty is that I couldn’t help but think that Jessica Chastain might have been miscast as the film’s strongwilled heroin. It was mainly just in the first half of the movie that I had a hard time believing her as this badass C.I.A. agent, but by the end she had basically won me over in believing that this character would go through this kind of transformation. Also, it’s nice to see James Gandolfini, Kyle Chandler, and Mark Strong sink their teeth into some juicy roles, when that’s not always the case for character actors of their kind. But honestly, I can’t really think of much more praise I can heap on this film, let alone knocks against it, because for me this a film that more or less gets everything right, and in the process reminds us that movies still have the power to be a vital document of these crazy times in which we live.