Bosco’s Word: Zero Dark Thirty
The hunt for Osama bin Laden has gone down in history as one of the most extensive manhunts in international history. Killed on May 2nd, 2011, bin Laden is regarded as one of the most dangerous terrorists in human history. In Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, she teams up with soldier turned screenwriter Mark Boal once again after their collaboration on 2009′s The Hurt Locker to tell the story of the ten year hunt for Osama bin Laden.
Opening with the real phone calls of 9/11 victims both inside the planes and the buildings, which is then followed by an unrelentingly brutal scene of torture, it’s easy to infer from its opening minutes that Zero Dark Thirty wants to make an impression. Tracking the ten year manhunt for Osama bin Laden over the course of two hours and thirty-seven minutes, Zero Dark Thirty attempts to consolidate seemingly endless hours of searching into a war epic that accurately depicts this time in US history.
Many critics are calling this the most important film of the year but what surprised me the most about Zero Dark Thirty wasn’t how much it impressed me, but how little I learned. Sparking controversy with the CIA due to its graphic depictions of American government agents inflicting pain upon those responsible for 9/11 in order to gain information about the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden, I’m honestly surprised that much of the material in this film can be called controversial when the CIA was portrayed negatively in Safe House just a couple months ago. And that film took place in 2012!
Now, of course, Safe House is fiction and Zero Dark Thirty claims to be based on undeniable truths, but I find it hard to believe that the entire hunt for bin Laden was propelled forward by the power of one woman. The woman in question is Maya (Jessica Chastain) who, in 2003, is sent to Pakistan to assist the CIA division set up there during their hunt for the men behind the 9/11 attacks. Coached briefly by her coworkers Dan (Jason Clarke), Joseph Bradley (Kyle Chandler), and Jack (Harold Perrineau), among others, Maya begins to obsess over the whereabouts of the world’s most wanted man.
I really wish I could give you a more detailed synopsis than that one but I’m afraid there really isn’t one to give. The film opens with thirty minutes of torture, followed by thirty minutes of terrorist attacks. We’re then treated to an hour of CIA jargon and a shockingly unfocused narrative until finally the Seal Team Six hunt for Osama bin Laden consumes the film’s final thirty minutes.
Characters enter and exit before anyone is given a chance to learn their name, years fly by as each is only given about ten to fifteen minutes of screen time, and I’d be willing to say that the film’s first forty-five minutes are really quite unnecessary. There’s an excellent scene that takes place in 2008 which could have served as an effective and thrilling opening sequence. Maya is meeting up with her coworker and good friend Jessica (Jennifer Ehle). They talk about Maya’s refusal to engage herself in a serious relationship when all of a sudden an explosion demolishes the room they’re sitting in. Their location is revealed to be the Marriott hotel in Islamabad that was attacked on September 20th of that year.
The first forty-five minutes, comprised mostly of Maya’s introduction as well as the interrogation of one of bin Laden’s accomplices, could have been condensed to about ten or fifteen minutes and would have been more effective had the torture scenes not been so straightforward. Like the rest of the film, much of the torture is not left to the imagination and meant to shock and engage us. But the way it’s presented is so matter-of-fact and procedural that it almost had an inverse effect on me. I’ve watched a lot of horror movies and I’ve seen a lot of torture sequences, so why not present it in a more stylistically pleasing way that not only engages the viewer more but allows the more gruesome aspects to be left to the imagination, where the limits of MPAA and budget have no jurisdiction.
I have no doubts that the woman who inspired Maya was a driving force in the hunt for bin Laden, but disregarding the hundreds of other men and women who assisted her in her search should be causing more controversy than the torture sequences. Hard as she may try, Kathryn Bigelow didn’t convince me for one moment that Maya was the only person truly dedicated to the search for bin Laden, an idea this film tries to pass for truth.
Why Bigelow decided to bring ten years worth of searching and research to the screen is beyond me. Before bin Laden was killed, Bigelow and Boal had the idea to base the film around the 2001 Battle of Tora Bora but essentially started from scratch after bin Laden’s death was confirmed. I can see where the film was somewhat lost in translation because, to be honest, Zero Dark Thirty is so sloppily put together I’m shocked by both the quality of the final product and the critical acclaim it’s been receiving for the past few months.
What it all really boils down to is Zero Dark Thirty‘s insistence on tiring the audience with what seems like an endless number of disconnected sequences and character introductions that never go beyond the time in which they are presented. The Marriott bombing sequence is immediately followed by an unscathed, unaffected Maya and Jessica discussing an entirely different event than the one they just experienced not seconds before. It’s almost as if Bigelow wants to remind us, “Hey, remember when this happened? Yeah, me too. Listen, I’m just gonna include this because it was important and I’m Kathryn Bigelow, so deal with it. We’ll get back to the talky talky in just a minute, cool?”
In both a cinematic and narrative sense, Zero Dark Thirty is about as exciting as a stack of papers profiling a number of people who may or may not be linked to Osama bin Laden in some unspecified way. Sure, you might catch something every once in a while, but 9 times out of 10 you just have to go through the motions. And that’s where Zero Dark Thirty left me: going through the motions of a series of events I already remember from my own lifetime. Nowhere is anything dramatic introduced. Nowhere is any real character development even hinted at. Boal’s script is bland and Bigelow’s direction is boring. Jessica Chastain’s performance is lifeless, like the rest of this movie, and while I understand its acclaim, I have no reason to agree.
Sure to garner many Academy Award nominations and even a possible Best Picture win, but Zero Dark Thirty seems designed to piss off those who work in the government and please those who work in the entertainment industry. It’s a reminder that Hollywood is still able to produce hard-hitting dramas about the military that don’t look like Act of Valor. My advice? You’re better off watching The Invisible War and calling it a night.