One sentence synopsis: A CIA analyst tries to locate Osama Bin Laden and assembles a SEAL team to strike what she thinks is his hideout.
Things Havoc liked: Katherine Bigalow has established herself as the reigning queen of ripped-from-the-headlines modern military-espionage films, having transcended her mediocre-to-decent directing career (Point Break, Strange Days, K-19) with 2009's Hurt Locker, a movie which catapulted her into the A-list of Hollywood directors and garnered more awards than I can reasonably talk about here. That said, I was not tremendously eager to see Zero Dark Thirty, Bigelow's take on the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, as I was simply not interested in what I assumed would be another Hollywood take on the politics of the War on Terror.
Well consider me officially stupid. Zero Dark Thirty has nothing to do with politics, with pat excoriations of the villains of the last ten years, or really with anything that its many, many critics seem intent on accusing it of (we'll get to that subject). What it has to do with is procedure, the long, slow, agonizing process of a CIA agent trying to hunt down and find Bin Laden in the face of great care taken by he and his handlers to ensure he cannot be found. Said Agent, named only "Maya" in the movie and based, apparently, on an actual agent still undercover with the CIA, is the narrative focus of the first two thirds of the film, as we watch her single-mindedly and even obsessively hunt for clues to Bin Laden's whereabouts for more than eight years, operating from both Pakistan and Virginia. Maya is a cypher, entirely work-focused, hinted to be almost entirely without a personal life, and utterly relentless in her search, casting aside the advice of friends and the objections of bosses alike as she tracks down Bin Laden, step by awkward step. Yet the search itself is portrayed with more care than perhaps any procedural sequence in any film I've ever seen. The obstacles Maya encounters seem both real and reasonable, and we get an excellent sense of just how a CIA analyst manages to do their job, sifting through mountainous piles of data to distill the solution they are looking for. The people Maya has to push through are not carbon-copy "unlistening idiots" but reasonable CIA agents with reasonable objections to Maya's obsession, several of whom even question if Bin Laden is relevant anymore on the stage of international terrorism. She threatens and cajoles her way through such obstacles, not in scenes of screaming insanity (okay, mostly not), but in sequences that we can imagine happening. At one point we meet a new boss of her station, who approves her demands for more resources with the comment that he was told by his predecessor it's just easier to give her what she wants.
And what does she want? Why to find Osama of course, and the process of finding him is an involved one. We see scenes of torture, waterboarding and beatings and other such activities, but the film makes clear fairly early on (though not clear enough for some) that torture is not yielding useful results, and that more subtle methods will be required. The film is then about these methods, as associates of Bin Laden are laboriously identified, tracked, pegged to this part of Pakistan or that part of Libya, their cover identities are penetrated and their movements monitored. All the while, the War on Terror rages on around Maya and her small coterie of co-workers and associates, claiming the lives of more than one, and placing her in some (though thankfully not belabored) jeopardy from the other side. The overall picture we get of the CIA is a group of people, some right and some wrong, but all doing what they think is best to try and stymie the acts of ruthless men who wish to kill Americans. Their work is neither dramatized nor shoehorned into someone's idea of the politics of the world, and as with last year's Argo, it is a refreshing sight to see. The addition of such actors as Mark Strong, Jason Clarke, and James Gandolfini (finally not playing Tony Soprano) helps cement this as one of the best procedural spycraft films I've ever seen, particularly late in the process as teams of CIA men are working on the ground in Pakistan to try and trace a cell phone, all while options are being rationally considered and discarded by officials back in the US.
Things Havoc disliked: I've avoided, until this point, mentioning that Maya is played by Jessica Chastain. I've done this because, frankly, she's just not that good.
I know, I know, this is insanity. Chastain has been nominated for Oscars and just finished winning the Golden Globe Awards. I know. But I have to call these things like I see them and Chastain is way, way off course with this one. I can forgive that she looks about 22, but I can't forgive that she acts like she's 22. I said above that the movie is about careful, controlled work used to ultimately bring Bin Laden down, but in between scenes of said work, we get scenes of Chastain trying to act tough to her superiors, to the detainees, to anyone who gets in her way. Everyone reacts to her like she's some firebrand spy who can destroy the reputations of those who cross her, yet all we see is a child throwing a tantrum. Her efforts to appear driven just come across as petulant, consequently forcing us (or me at least) to constantly imagine that the other actors are reacting to someone else who is delivering their lines in a more reasonable manner. At one point, she begins a process of writing passive-aggressive notes on the glass office door of her boss at the CIA to protest why nothing is being done to follow up on one of her leads, something I could understand if she did not continue to write said notes even after her leads are being followed up on by the boss in question, as though he had done nothing at all. I don't pretend to know how the CIA works, but I would not expect to remain long-employed if I engaged in behavior like that, not even in Government.
There's also the issue of the last third of the film. This would be the part that deals with the actual raid on the Bin Laden compound, a raid presented in an extremely realistic manner and (it appears) in real time. I can appreciate the artistry of such a sequence, and the skill that no doubt had to go into producing it, but the fact remains that while this raid is presented, I'm sure, with the greatest of fidelity to the real raid, the film is not actually about this military operation, and shifting over to it for a full 45 minutes is jarring as all hell. Having spent an hour and a half watching a set of characters search for Bin Laden even as terrorists try to strike back at them, we are now suddenly in the company of an entirely new set of characters, none of whom we have met before or know anything about, as they laboriously clear the compound room by room, ultimately shooting Bin Laden down (spoiler alert) and returning to base. As we know that the raid happened and was a success even before sitting down in the theater, I am left with the question of just why the sequence was given so much prominence within the film. Real military operations are systematic affairs, neither flashy nor terribly interesting to watch, and this one consumes a full third of the movie's run-time, all to get us to a point that we knew, going in, we were going to get to from the beginning.
Final thoughts: I don't want to give the impression that I hated this movie, for I did not, nor that its flaws were crippling, for they were not. But a movie being touted as a strong contender for Best Picture awards must receive higher standards of scrutiny than the rest of its fellows, and Zero Dark Thirty is simply not the masterpiece that it is being described as. That said, it has also been the recipient of a great deal of political criticism, accused of being either an endorsement of torture (a laughable claim to anyone who has actually seen it) or pro-Obama propaganda about the inhumanity of the Bush Administration (an even more laughable claim). This would normally be the place where I respond to such criticism, but as I mentioned in my Django Unchained review, I don't tend to consider seriously the objections of people who have manifestly never seen the film in question. Zero Dark Thirty is, ultimately, an very good movie, but however it does on Oscar night, it is not destined to be remembered by me as one of the highlights of 2012.
Final Score: 7/10