The biggest manhunt in modern history culminated on May 2nd of 2011, essentially ten years after the biggest terror attack on American soil that was planned by the target of that manhunt. Zero Dark Thirty tells the story of the decade long hunt for Bin Laden and all the bureaucracy, false leads, long waits, close calls and ultimate payoff that occurred during it. The trailers and commercials for the movie make it out to seem like a fast paced, tension filled thriller. While there is tension spread out all over the film, fast paced and action oriented this movie is not. If anything the movie is a procedural drama that takes its time filling in the details of the who’s, how’s, where’s and when’s during the lead up to the eventual raid.
Jessica Chastain plays Maya, a wet behind the ears CIA agent who lands the case for the search for Bin Laden. She’s introduced into the world she now finds herself in by fellow Agent, Dan, played by Jason Clarke. She’s barely settled in before Dan breaks her in as a witness to the interrogation techniques he uses to try and garner information from a prisoner. The opening scene of the movie is harsh and unflinching in its depiction of torture as is the next interrogation scene after that one. On the subject of the film’s portrayal of torture, there have been many critics giving their thoughts and views on what the film shows and whether or not the movie is trying to say that torture works and whether or not the film was even exaggerating the use of such techniques for dramatic purposes. The film never comes out and says one way or another whether torture works, it simply shows its uses and the effects that come from it. But for all the talk of the depiction of torture in this film, when trying to get the information needed to find Bin Laden, the first true lead that the agents receive doesn’t come from torture, but instead from simply treating a prisoner to some food and a cigarette and talking to him like someone would to talk to an associate while just hanging out.
As the years go by and the trail goes from lukewarm to plain cold, we see Chastain’s character grow from someone who’s shaken and unsure of herself by what she sees from her interrogations and travels across the middle east, to someone who has the confidence within herself to stand eye to eye with her superiors and demand what she needs of them, to running interrogations of her own as if it were second nature. Chastain’s performance is at the center of the film and the growing confidence she shows within her characters helps anchor the movie and keeps the viewer interested enough when the trail that leads to Bin Laden all but disappears and the film starts to drag.
Audiences expecting to see what the previews promised them will have to be patient with this movie. As I said, it takes its time on the lead up to the ultimate conclusion, the film’s pacing is purposely slow, and in that I believe the movie is meant for the viewer to experience the frustration and agitation that the agents who worked this manhunt felt for all those years. Especially when their case breaks, and after numerous setbacks which have tragic consequences for some, they have a true lead to work on and do nothing for months because their bosses aren’t sure the evidence they have is enough. The film does suffer from this lag and slow pacing, I think a good half hour could’ve been cut from this film (which is almost three hours long) and the story wouldn’t have suffered from it. But for all the problems with the slowness of the film, the last forty or so minutes ramp up the pacing once the decision is made to act on the evidence that’s had and that’s where the true payoff (both for the characters and and viewer) comes through. Probably the best part of the film is the introduction of Seal Team Six and their subsequent raid on Bin Laden’s compound. Based on accounts given to the film makers by the people involved, we see how efficient this team was during the raid. Director Kathryn Bigelow’s ability to practically place the viewer in the middle of it all with all the tension and anxiety I’m sure those soldiers had to have felt, points to her talents as one of the more gifted directors around at the moment.
Zero Dark Thirty is a good film. It’s a very good film. I personally don’t think it’s best picture of the year good, but good nonetheless. It’s not a film everyone will be comfortable watching, either for its depictions of torture or simply because of how long it takes to tell the story its telling. The movie requires patience to sit through, but the story that it shows and how it shows it makes the viewer understand, at least a little, just what everyone involved had to go through, had to give up, and lose, in order to secure the most wanted man in American history.