Zero Dark Thirty
Runtime 157 minutes.
OK for children.
The decision one has to make is whether it’s worth sitting through the first two hours, which seem more like five, to see the final 37 minutes. Director Kathryn Bigelow has decided to tell the story of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden by starting 10 years before with the attack on 9/11 and moving on from there. This is akin to telling the story of Lincoln’s second inaugural address by starting with Columbus discovering America in 1492.
Further, Bigelow disdains telling of the courage and brilliance of the Navy SEALs who accomplished the task and the danger of what they did, by concentrating the film on one woman, Maya (Jessica Chastain), who is, according to the producers “based on a real person.” In Hollywood parlance, all that means is that there was a woman who worked for the CIA at the time. According to this film, Maya is the reason bin Laden was found and killed. So for two hours we are treated to Maya’s single-minded pursuit of bin Laden when just about everybody around her opposed her.
One of the reasons that might explain why the film spends so much time on things other than the raid is that Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal spent quite a bit of time developing a film about the search for bin Laden. When bin Laden was actually killed, they had to consider scrapping all their work and make a film that ended with the killing raid. Instead of scrapping it, though, they just tacked the raid on to the end of what they had already prepared. At least that’s the way this movie looks, since 80% of it is about the search for bin Laden.
The raid to kill bin Laden was a marvelous testament to American military men. It was highly dangerous and spectacularly risky. This film shows the raid, and this part of the film is very well done, but it does not show the planning or the evaluation of the huge risks involved, and because it only takes up the last half hour of the film, it diminishes the remarkable accomplishment. It also barely touches on the danger. Bigelow, a woman, chooses to basically ignore the men who planned and carried out the raid and gives all the credit to another woman. Bigelow has admitted that the fact that a woman played a key role “thrilled” her.
There’s another reason why they chose to concentrate the story on “Maya.” The woman upon whom the character is based cooperated fully with Bigelow and Boal. Thus, she was made the heroine, pictured by Bigelow and Boal as the only person really interested in getting bin Laden. However, apparently she is not the self-effacing, quiet person portrayed by Chastain. According to Alexander C. Kaufman in an article in The Wrap, “Earlier this year, when she and a handful of employees were awarded the agency’s Distinguished Intelligence Medal, the officer criticized her fellow recipients. She hit ‘reply all’?to an e-mail announcement of the awards, a former CIA official told the Post. The thrust of her message, the former official said, was: ‘You guys tried to obstruct me. You fought me. Only I deserve the award.’”
The first two hours are so uninvolving that I was fighting sleep most of the time. The bombings and attacks, which are supposed to be surprising, even shocking, are so clumsily handled and so telegraphed that you can see them coming a mile away, except for one bombing in a hotel that does come out of the blue and makes one jump.
Chastain doesn’t help things much. Her performance is greatly below what was required. She doesn’t exude the charisma that would seem to be necessary for a woman in a man’s world to do what she is given to do in this movie. Someone like Emily Blunt would have been much more appropriate for the role. But the fault doesn’t lie entirely with Chastain. Bigelow and the script (Mark Boal) have to take equal blame.
One bright spot in the film is the music by Alexandre Desplat. The filmmakers fail in their effort to create the tension that should be natural to a story like this, but Desplat does his best to make whatever tension the film creates, which isn’t much.
So this really isn’t the story of the raid, how it was planned, and how it was carried out, or the men in the raid. No, it’s the quasi-fictional story of how one woman was responsible for finding and killing bin Laden. The first two hours provide a fine antidote for insomnia. I was looking forward to this film and came away deeply disappointed.