Film Review: Controversial war movie lacks focus, emotional resonance


Less than a month ago, Zero Dark Thirty was the frontrunner to take home the Best Picture prize at this year´s Academy Awards. Two things have happened since then: The Oscar nominations were announced on Jan. 10 and Zero Dark Thirty, directed by Kathryn Bigelow and starring Jessica Chastain, was released on Jan. 11. Following both, the film no longer remains the favorite for Best Picture. Why?

Bigelow´s two hour and 37 minute portrayal of “The greatest manhunt in history” – the search for Osama bin Laden following the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11 – was nominated for Best Picture, along with eight other films. Chastain was nominated for Best Actress. But Bigelow herself did not earn a nomination for directing. Only three times in the Academy Awards´ history has a movie won Best Picture without a nomination for its director. It hasn't happened since 1989's Driving Miss Daisy.

Zero Dark Thirty has not had an easy go of things. In the wake of its early limited release came a political controversy focusing on the implications that the film promotes the use of torture, or at least suggests that torture led to the death of bin Laden. That, coupled with speculation of just how much information the CIA gave to Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal, drew ire from movie critics and United States senators, including Sen. John McCain.

The film´s reputation, cloaked in anticipation and controversy, precedes itself. Yet after seeing the film, it seems much ado about nothing.

It´s clear what sparked the political brouhaha; torture certainly plays a role in Zero Dark Thirty, gruesome and unsettling in its casual usefulness. But the film doesn´t actively condone its use – it even includes the U.S. crackdown on its own use of torture following the events at Abu Ghraib – and it´s important to separate film from reality. Though Zero Dark Thirty may be based on actual events, it is still a major motion picture intended to sell tickets.

If anything, the film´s reluctance to enter the political conversation is just another one of its shortcomings as a film, regardless of its possible endorsement of torture. Zero Dark Thirty opens with audio of the Sept. 11 attacks and jumps from period to period over the course of nearly three hours, pausing briefly here and there along the way, until the fateful mission that led to bin Laden´s assassination.

It follows CIA operative Maya (Chastain) as she pieces together clue after clue searching for bin Laden. The role, which emphasizes careful restraint over emotions, doesn´t lend itself to the kind of acting worthy of an Oscar. Perhaps Chastain´s nomination is for quantity instead of quality as there aren´t many minutes in the film when she isn´t on screen

The film´s true problem, though, lies in its storytelling. While its Oscar rival Lincoln uses its two and a half hours to tell the story of a few months, Zero Dark Thirty goes for the opposite, spanning 10 years. It moves quickly through the decade and does well enough as an overview of the “manhunt” but it´s just that: an overview.

Bigelow doesn´t linger long enough on any one chapter to make a truly powerful impact. Considering its audience already knows the ending, the film seems to rush its way through giving its viewers the necessary information and backstory before getting to the part everyone paid the price of admission to see.

And that sequence doesn´t disappoint. Watching Navy SEAL Team 6 infiltrate and make its way through the compound in Pakistan is a reminder of why Bigelow won big at the Oscars in 2010 for The Hurt Locker. The scene is an ominous adrenaline rush, and though the end is already spoiled, it creates a feeling of suspense that is finally dispelled when bin Laden is in the body bag and the SEALs are on their way back to base.

Unfortunately this scene is an exception to an otherwise unmemorable story. The rest of it, Maya´s story, feels unremarkable in comparison. What is the audience supposed to feel for Maya at the film´s conclusion? The film reveals little more about her than that she possesses one hell of a work ethic. Why does she dedicate 10 years of her life to the CIA and the hunt for bin Laden? Other than patriotism and a sense of national mourning, why does she care – why do we care?

Zero Dark Thirty feels as if it is merely going through the motions. Of course there was going to be a film about the search for and assassination of bin Laden; this film is it, serviceable and satisfactory. But there isn´t much more at work than that.