Here’s how Jim Beaver described the film’s premise on IMDb: “Maya is a CIA operative whose first experience is in the interrogation of prisoners following the Al Qaeda attacks against the U.S. on the 11th September 2001. She is a reluctant participant in extreme duress applied to the detainees, but believes that the truth may only be obtained through such tactics. For several years, she is single-minded in her pursuit of leads to uncover the whereabouts of Al Qaeda's leader, Osama Bin Laden. Finally, in 2011, it appears that her work will pay off, and a U.S. Navy SEAL team is sent to kill or capture Bin Laden. But only Maya is confident Bin Laden is where she says he is.”
The film was originally conceived to tell the take of the unsuccessful hunt, but that all changed in 2011 when Bin Laden was killed. A couple of scripts rewrite by Mark Boal, and Bigelow was able to tell the whole take. Now it’s important to remember that this isn’t a documentary, rather a dramatized account pieced together through interviews, research, etc. While it’s based on fact, it’s not historically accurate—at least that’s what acting CIA Director Michael Morell said when he took the unusual step of issuing a statement about the film and contradicting the use of enhanced interrogation techniques (AKA torture). "That impression is false,” Morell said in the statement. “We cannot allow a Hollywood film to cloud our memory."
As previously mentioned, Zero Dark Thirty has been generating a lot of Oscar buzz and is a critically acclaimed film. For those reasons I was excited and had high expectations, but I must be honest, it didn’t blow me away (I know, a bad pun given the subject matter). It certainly was a good film, but it wasn’t exceptional. There were a lot of things I liked about Zero Dark Thirty, but then again there were some things I didn’t.
Let me start with the things I did, because on the whole the film was satisfying. First and foremost was the ability for Boal and Bigelow to generate so much tension and suspense involving events that stretched out over the course of a decade. In reality, the hunt for Bin Laden was long and tedious, and the film does a good job imparting this without actually encompassing it. What’s more, both managed to bring that suspense to a satisfying climax—the raid on Bin Laden’s compound. While the audience already knows what's going to happen, it was still an intense, and seemingly realistic, account of Bin Laden’s final moments.
I also like the fact that neither Bigelow nor Boal shied away from showing some “enhanced interrogation techniques”. Deny as much as they’d like, these sort of things most certainly happened and it’d have been wrong to gloss over it. Speaking of these scenes, Jason Clarke did an excellent job playing the character Dan, who was responsible for ascertaining vital information. He was calm, cool and collected while doing he job, but you could tell that it was chipping away at his soul. In my opinion his was the most developed character in the film. More on that shortly.
Finally, I love the film’s realism. Even though it was a dramatization, and liberties were taken for entertainment purposes, it still came off as a realistic account—much like Bigelow’s Academy Award winning film, The Hurt Locker, did back in 2008. I highly enjoyed one scene where security procedures were skipped and those who did so were duly punished. For me, it brought the unceasing danger associated with war to life.
Now, let me touch upon a few of the things I felt were lacking. First and foremost were the characters. I already mentioned Clarke did an excellent job, and for the most part I thought the rest of the cast did as well. Jessica Chastain was great as Maya, the CIA protagonist, while Mark Duplass, James Gandolfini, Joel Edgerton and Chris Pratt did well in their limited roles (Pratt’s Navy Seal character was the perfect amount of comic relief); however, the problem was they were barely featured and hardly developed.
Another thing I hate is when films underutilize and essentially waste quality talent. That’s what they did with Stephen Dillane, who played a National Security advisor in the film. I was a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it role, which is a shame for the man who ahs tackled big roles such as Stannis Baratheon in Game of Thrones and Thomas Jefferson in the HBO miniseries John Adams.
Don’t get me wrong, I thought Zero Dark Thirty was a very good film, it just wasn’t as great as I was led to believe. It’s nominated for Best Picture, and it could very well win as the competing films don’t hold a distinct advantage. I wouldn’t be disappointed if it won, the same way I wouldn’t be if either Beasts of the Southern Wild, Life of Pi, or Argo won (I haven’t seen Amour, Les Miserables and Silver Linings Playbook and don’t believe Django Unchained nor Lincoln deserve the honors); however, I do feel Bigelow, who got snubbed for Best Director, deserved a nomination as she’s a tremendous director, a fact she proved once again with Zero Dark Thirty.
Buddies Forever Movie Club Rating: 80%