Review: Zero Dark Thirty


Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty

In the first moments of Kathryn Bigelow's new Zero Dark Thirty, the audience faces a black screen as heartbreaking distress calls from September 11, 2001 are heard. Then we are thrust into a gritty scene of a Saudi prisoner being tortured by the CIA for information. A few minutes in, our intrepid protagonist, CIA analyst Maya (Jessica Chastain) is revealed.

Bigelow's film fictionalizes the search for Osama bin Laden, with periods of time during the hunt split into titled vignettes. The multi-year hunt is condensed to about 2.5 hours, which still tends to feel long. Some say the movie is pro-torture, some say it is not. I'd say a realistic depiction of the story would include torture since it was indeed used by the agency (although it hardly seems effective). However, these scenes in Zero Dark Thirty are too long and arduous and only serve to slow the narrative. Just as the agents are frustrated at the lack of information they get through these sadistic and arcane methods, I was slightly peeved that the story might never get moving.

Finally Maya comes up with an idea to trick a prisoner into giving intel and the clue she gets from him leads her on the search that haunts her for the rest of the film. The cast around her is ginormous and nothing to sneeze at (Kyle Chandler! Jennifer Ehle with an accent that switches on and off! There are many "Hey, isn't that--" moments in Zero Dark Thirty). Years pass as Maya gets ever closer to finding her man.

The movie really and truly gains spirit and momentum in the last hour, once bin Laden's compound has been discovered (spoiler? c'mon, you know this already).  The visual effects and sound effects during the raid sequence are phenomenal, and the performances by the actors (Chris Pratt, Taylor Kinney, and Joel Edgerton among others) playing the SEAL team are nuanced.  It is too bad the rest of the film isn't as amazing as this.

I've seen Chastain do wonderful work in other movies, but her portrayal of Maya here never really sold me.  Maya's work is her life; the only friends she has are work friends, and not many of those. There are attempts to give her depth, but they never really succeed. Although Maya's search provides the trajectory for the film, Zero Dark Thirty is far more story-driven than character-driven. 

Texas connections: Former Austinite Mark Duplass shows up as a CIA employee at Langley, and San Antonio native Jessica Collins appears in a quick (but revelatory) cameo.  Actor Kyle Chandler lives in Austin.

Chastain Hits it on the Nail

Jessica Chastain and Kathryn Bigelow elevate the role of women in cinema to the the highest level imaginable in their work in this film. This film is purely about the search for Osama Bin Laden by one agent analyst and her persistence to find him and kill him. The character, Maya, is comfortable using "f***" in her communications with all levels of government and makes her intentions known to all who will listen. She is a beauty who never uses her femininity to get her way. She uses strength, intelligence, persistent courage and endless, endless hard work. I loved this character and loved the film. Kathryn Bigelow is a fabulous story teller and the screenplay by Mark Boal is so authentic. There is no posturing in this film. Just a story told about how a group of people went courageously into the night to kill an evil man. And the woman who would not give up until her task was completed. Jessica Chastain's acceptance speech this evening at the Golden Globes exemplified the serious, hard working actor she is. She deserves every accolade coming her way.