Zero Dark Thirty – empty war epic

Zero Dark Thirty is the much-buzzed about Oscar favorite of the decade-long hunt for terrorist leader Osama bin Laden. By the end of it, I felt that I’d sat through every one of those 10 years.

Technically, it’s superbly put together. Kathryn Bigelow’s direction is excellent, packed with quality performances mixed with solid dialogue, but this felt more like a series of loosely-connected interludes with ban Laden the dangling carrot just that far out of reach from his pursuers.

The film’s final act where S.E.A.L. Team 6 approach bin Laden’s hideout is tense stuff. As the soldiers (including Joel Edgerton, The Odd Life of Timothy Green and Chris Pratt, 10 Years) utilize their night vision goggles and storm the stronghold in precision fashion, Bigelow makes you feel like you’re right there with them so despite knowing the conclusion, you’re on the edge of your seat in the film’s most exhilarating moment. It’s scenes like this and in Bigelow’s 2008 Oscar winning “The Hurt Locker,” that make me wonder how she would fare directing a Bond-like action film if she didn’t consider it beneath her talents.

1134604 - Zero Dark ThirtyFor the most part, Bigelow keeps a methodical pace with scattered moments of adrenaline-rush excitement that shows her enjoyment for the thrill of the chase rather than making the chase thrilling.

Maya (Jessica Chastain) is a young CIA officer focused on tracking information that leads to bin Laden. Maya is the best chance for Mark Boal (Bigelow’s frequent collaborator and Hurt Locker Oscar-winning screenwriter) to connect the audience with the lead character, but he always keeps her at a surface level so we can only guess at her motivation. I was glad Boal didn’t bog her down with some boyfriend or the mother yearning to see her kids back home. Maya is a driven character, but we have little reason to invest in her.

Chastain gets a few showcase scenes, which she utilizes to make her the Best Actress Oscar frontrunner. Every so often through the next decade we check back in on Maya and a rotating assortment of agents (including Jennifer Ehle, Kyle Chandler and Harold Perrineau) feverishly scouring every lead in pursuit of bin Laden. You’ve heard all the controversy about the torture scenes, but as someone who watched 24, it’s not that much more graphic than what you’d see on network TV.

1134604 - Zero Dark ThirtyOnce a promising lead develops, Maya has to convince her cautious superiors (including Mark Strong, John Carter and James Gandolfini, Killing Them Softly) that she’s done her part and finally found bin Laden.

The 9-11 terrorist attacks and Osama’s death still feel a little too fresh in my mind to plunk down $40 and munch on some popcorn to take in on the big screen. Bigelow isn’t trying to entertain the audience, but I’m not sure what she wants us to take from the film as the end credits start. The film isn’t an inspirational piece, a rah-rah “Go USA!” propaganda piece either nor will it spark conversations of American interrogation techniques.

It’s simply there for the audiences to make what they will. Zero Dark Thirty is a competent film, but for me the curtain wasn’t drawn back enough to reveal anything to offer more than what’s already known about the hunt for bin Laden.

 Rating: 5 out of 10

Photo Credit: Jonathan Olley/Columbia Pictures

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