Review by Pete Mason
The title “Zero Dark Thirty” references the time of day in Abottabad, Pakistan, that a May, 2011 raid on a compound netted one dead Osama Bin Laden and his computers and files. It also stands for “under the cover of darkness” in military parlance, but it could reference the last 30 minutes of the film, which was the only interesting part of the film, following a long, slow and bureaucratic two hours that lead up to the big finale. It’s not that “Zero Dark Thirty” wasn’t good, it’s just that it was incredibly slow and boring, up until the last half hour, recalling Kathryn Bigelow’s other recent film, and somehow a Best Picture Winner, “The Hurt Locker.”
Starting out with a dark screen and “September 11, 2001” flashed on the screen, we know that the story leads us from the terrorist attacks of that day to the killing of Osama bin Laden. What takes place in between is torture, searching for concrete intelligence that will lead the CIA to bin Laden and proof that he is in the building that they eventually locate. The first 30 minutes is a primer on torture techniques that were used at that time (and possibly today) including waterboarding, sleep deprivation and solitary confinement, to break the suspected terrorists into giving names so they could get closer to bin Laden and other top Al Qaeda leaders. The torture isn’t too off putting and safe for most adults to handle, but whether it was real or not didn’t matter to me – this is a movie, and I would expect to have things like this either embellished or spiced up, simply for entertainment value. Why things need to be exactly like they are in real life is a mystery to me.
The sequence of events leads us to the next contact, and the next, stretching out over a decade at a frustratingly slow pace. Jessica Chastain, last seen solving racism in “The Help,” plays a CIA officer who is brought to Pakistan and other rogue sites around the Eastern Hemisphere for the purpose of extracting intel from suspects and captives, so as to determine who is telling the truth and what lead will guide them to the ultimate catch. She’s good in her role, but I cannot fathom how she won a Golden Globe for this role, let alone received an Oscar nomination for Best Actress. Her co-star, Jason Clark, is the one who gets his hands dirty with torture, who shows the marks of being in a new kind of war, one fought in dark rooms and secretly in countries that turn the other cheek to torture. When he finally does break and heads back to work at the CIA in the States, he shows the two sides of this war – one that is fought on the front lines and one as a bureaucrat behind a desk at CIA Headquarters in Langley. His character’s struggle and role in the big picture are overshadowed by the rest of the film.
As a reminder to the viewer, there were other acts of terrorism throughout the last decade that spurred a faster drive to catch bin Laden – the shoe bomber, bombings in London and Spain, Islamabad, Times Square and elsewhere – but these are just dropped into place to fit in the timeline and to progress the story. Take them out and you have a tighter film, and not one that feels like it is killing time until the end. We all remember that there were terrorists attacks after 9/11, throwing them in feels more as though Bigelow and writer/producer Mark Boal were saying to audiences, “Oh hey, remember this? Good, it advances the story!”
The final part of the film, the last 30 minutes or so when two helicopters head to bin Laden’s compound (one crashes) is the most riveting part of the film and worthy of being a stand alone short of its own. Going door by door, floor by floor, Chris Pratt (“Parks and Recreation”) and his team move upstairs through the compound until they finally take out bin Laden with two shots, followed by a couple more for good measure. They are in and out of the compound in short time, and while we all know the ending to this film, it was interesting to see how things came together in the end to make it happen. But it just dragged on and on and on to the point where watching a Congressional hearing on C-SPAN would have been more thrilling and interesting. Sure, it was cool to see how this all happened, but the best part was the end, the only part of the movie that really proved captivating.
“Zero Dark Thirty” is rated R and is nominated for five Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, Best Editing, Best Sound and Best Actress.