Zero Dark Thirty is a curious film that tries to walk a fine line between being a documentary and an action film. Much has been written about the controversial nature of the film for its depiction of torture techniques. Setting that aside and judging the film based purely on its artistic merit, I found it coming up short. The first half of the film is a major drag; the plot progresses slowly and I found myself disinterested in the machinations that it went through in representing the backstory of how Osama bin Laden was tracked down. Despite devoting a lot of screen time, the film hardly spends any time on meaningful character development or in making any kind of cogent political arguments. Dan (Jason Clarke), the only slightly-interesting character, is taken out of rotation early on and the rest is spent on making Maya (Jessica Chastain) appear “spunky” by dropping expletives in a meeting with top CIA brass. Mark Strong’s acting talent is wasted by giving him a bit role in the film.
The pace picks up with the last quarter of the film devoted to the actual military operation – ‘Operation Neptune Spear’ – which took down Osama bin Laden. It is here that Kathryn Bigelow’s direction works its magic in portraying the tension of the soldiers in an understated manner; along the lines of the iconically-understated manner in which she portrayed the sniper ambush in The Hurt Locker. The dialogue in one particular scene – where a Black Hawk helicopter crashes at the insertion LZ – is sure to remind viewers of Black Hawk Down. I was glad that the focus was kept on the teams in battle rather than relying of the crutch of cutting back to situation room far away with satellite imagery to explain the battlefield narrative as many war films tend to do.
Zero Dark Thirty feels like a film where Bigelow is relying on the goodwill of The Hurt Locker to score points with critics and the audience. I couldn’t help comparing Zero Dark Thirty to other genre films such as Syriana and Body of Lies that do a better job (in my opinion) of character development while keeping the pace consistently snappy. In a word: disappointed.
Rating: 2.5 / 5