Unreal Movie Review: Zero Dark Thirty

In a world where Homeland and Call of Duty attempt to paint unrealistic pictures of our military and intelligence operations for the uninformed, one man is attempting to set us straight.

Er, one woman, actually.

That would Katheryn Bigelow, ex-wife of James Cameron and phenomenal director in her own right. Two years ago she took home top Academy honors for The Hurt Locker, a stark look at the stress and adrenaline filled life of a bomb tech, and now she’s back with an even more ambitious attempt, the story of the long hunt for Osama Bin Laden.

As an American, it seemed like a pipe dream that we’d ever find the man behind 9/11. He was assuredly in a cave we could never locate or dead with his ashes scattered across the sands to never be identified. But we found him and killed him, and the story of how we got there could likely fill a dozen films.

But here Bigelow only has under three hours. and condenses the data and action into something resembling a more exciting version of three hour History Channel documentary (if they still did those instead of airing Pawn Stars nonstop). Though many dozens and hundreds and thousands came together to find Bin Laden, Bigelow, either based on the facts or the need for a more streamlined narrative, gives a huge share of the credit to one woman, an intelligence operative known only as Maya (Jessica Chastain).

Recruited straight out of high school, she spends the entire duration of her 12 year CIA career focused solely on finding Bin Laden. She starts thrown into the deep end, watching her superior, Dan (Jason Clarke) mercilessly torture an possible terrorist. One bit of information leads to another, which leads to another, and eight years later, Bin Laden may in fact be in sight.

The film is almost weirdly non-political. Bush and Obama are never mentioned by name, and only referenced in passing, There’s not really even a clear statement about whether torture is right or wrong. Many human rights advocates are championing the film, saying that no useful information is shown being given up when inmates are tortured. This is true, however information is gleaned when the interrogators start being nice after weeks and months of constant abuse. It’s unclear whether the same information would have been possible to obtain if it was all five star dinners and friendly smiles from the beginning.

It’s fascinating to see the slow crawl of intelligence over the better part of a decade. There would be nothing but a parade of dead ends for years until one tiny breakthrough that could change everything. The film is interspersed with references to other terrorist attacks, the bombings in London and the CIA meeting with a potential informant that turned out to be a suicide bomber.

During all this we do get a phenomenal performance from Chastain who alternates between resolute and exhausted in the face of her entire agency telling her she’s chasing wild geese. Unfortunately we learn nearly nothing about her character outside of the CIA except one scene where she explicitly states she doesn’t have a personal life. That may be true of many high level intelligence operatives, but for the film’s sake it seems like Maya is less of a character and more of a central, impersonal cog driving the plot forward.

The last segment of the film changes gears into what most paid admission to see, the operation to kill Bin Laden himself in Pakistan. Led by the jovial Justin (Parks and Recreation’s Chris Pratt), SEAL Team Six invades Bin Laden’s compound with nightvision, silenced submachine guns and explosive breach charges. It shows the careful precision with which operations like this take place, but that even the highest priority missions can go awry as one of the billion dollar stealth helicopters crashes to the earth for no discernible reason.

It’s an intense film, though not as much so as The Hurt Locker, which is due to its subject matter. Based on well-known true events, anyone with any knowledge of current events likely won’t be surprised at many turns of the film, as generally you know when a bomb will explode or if a target will be killed. As with many historical films, it’s hard to be left breathless when you know the conclusion, and such is the case here, though that shouldn’t really be held against it.

The film may start out a bit slow, but it starts to snowball over time into something quite exciting. Even if we know the ending, the journey to get there is well told, and no one does military realism quite like Bigelow, that’s for certain. Call of Duty, this is not.

4 out of 5 stars