I missed Zero Dark Thirty when it hit theaters even though pretty much every single film person I knew was telling me to get off my ass and check it out. I am a fan of director Katherine Bigelow, and her last film, The Hurt Locker, was pretty amazing even though I have no desire to watch it ever again. After seeing it on video I have to say that I’m plenty annoyed with myself for not making more of an effort to see it on the big screen.
The film chronicles the decade long hunt for Osama bin Laden that culminates with his death at the hands of a Navy SEALS team in 2011.
There are so many characters to keep track of at times that it made my brain hurt. Fortunately we have one main character to follow around for the entire runtime, and that would be Jessica Chastain’s Maya. Chastain gives a quiet confidence to her character that is ruined just about every time she speaks. She’s a great actress and all, but she is given some horrendous dialogue (“I’m the motherfucker that found the house, sir.”) and her character isn’t very likable. I found Jason Clarke’s character of Dan more compelling. We first meet him as he is interrogating one of bin Laden’s accountants, and even though terrible things are being done to this terrorist accomplice Dan manages to keep cool and calm the entire time. He talks in a measured voice and acts in a way that’s contrary to the scene. I found that approach to be mesmerizing, while Chastain’s Maya is given the typical behavior of a woman flinching and cowering in the corner. If she’s supposed to be this “mankiller” that the other characters constantly refer to her as being she sure isn’t written that way, at least not at the start. If Maya had been developed a little bit better I would have liked the character a lot more. As it is she’s not my favorite character in this movie. I ended up liking the group of barely developed Navy SEALS from the last 45 minutes of the movie more than her. That is this flick’s one major misstep. If you can’t make the main character relatable or even likable you know you’re in for some rough weather. Fortunately that was the only boo boo.
Director Kathryn Bigelow is no stranger to action/thriller aficionados. Back in the 80s and 90s she made some great ones like Point Break, Blue Steel and Strange Days. She even made one of my all-time favorite vampire movies – Near Dark. I am a lifelong fan, regardless of her craptastic K-19: The Widowmaker misstep in 2002. She became one of the elite when she won the Oscar for Best Director for The Hurt Locker in 2010 (I attended a presentation writer Mark Boal gave on screenwriting at a local college right after his Oscar win for Best Screenplay as well). While I found her award winning film amazing, I really have no interest in watching it again anytime soon due to its intense, bleak tone. However, Zero Dark Thirty proves that all she learned from making The Hurt Locker has helped her step up her game in a big way. This is a HUGE story that encompasses ten years in the life of one character. It’s epic, yet there isn’t a whole lot of action to be found within. I’m not complaining as she keeps the film pushing forward at a brisk pace, and when the shit does down during the thirty minute incursion scene in the finale she reels it in and keeps it low key and ultra suspenseful. And the scene where Jennifer Ehle’s character of Jessica is waiting for her contact at that military compound… talk about an awesomely suspenseful and emotionally harrowing scene. Kudos! Regardless of the violence and horrifying events that take place in Zero Dark Thirty, unlike The Hurt Locker I can definitely see myself watching this a few more times.
I will also give composer Alexandre Desplat a shout out for his amazing musical score. I am not a fan of him normally since he tends to gravitate toward more dramatic fare (Moonrise Kingdom, The Tree of Life, The King’s Speech), but his dark strings and bassy electronic work here is pretty damned cool. It’s sometimes reminiscent of Howard Shore’s Se7en score, but this gets the edge due to the multiple theme variations. Other than his Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part II work, this is one of the only soundtracks of his I can honestly say I enjoyed.
An interesting character study during an extremely intense military operation doesn’t sound like it would make for a very entertaining movie. I know because this is exactly what I said back when I heard about this film. I stand corrected. I enjoyed the hell out of this movie regardless of its main character. All of the supporting players make up for that error in ways you cannot imagine. I highly recommend this flick if you are a fan of military films or just great films in general. Was it the best movie of 2012 like most people have proclaimed? Not really. I still stand by The Cabin in the Woods as being more entertaining. But this is definitely in the top 10.
4 out of 5