By JAMES DAWSON
Front Row Features Film Critic
Bafflingly chosen as 2012’s best picture by some critics, the adequate but unexceptional “Zero Dark Thirty” is one of three wildly overpraised Oscar frontrunners this year. Like “Argo” and “Silver Linings Playbook,” the movie will be a letdown for anyone who falls for the excessive hype surrounding the film. It’s not bad, but it certainly isn’t great.
“Zero Dark Thirty” chronicles interrogations and investigations leading to the capture of Osama bin Laden, with allowances for the usual “dramatic license” liberties, but there is nothing especially artistic, clever or innovative about the telling of the tale. While “Zero Dark Thirty” may not play as fast and loose with the facts as the flagrantly fictionalized “Argo,” neither is it as grittily “you are there” believable as (to choose a better 9/11-related film than this one) 2006’s “United 93.”
Director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal, who won Oscars for their work on 2010 Best Picture winner “The Hurt Locker,” turn the CIA’s hunt for bin Laden into what plays like an aggravatingly extended episode of “24.” Star Jessica Chastain does a barely subdued Julia Roberts impersonation as Maya, a tightly wound workaholic with perfect loose curls.
Maya reacts to bad news by sitting on the floor in a photogenic shell-shocked pout. She stares meaningfully at maps and wall-pinned headshots, she animatedly emotes while addressing an empty conference room’s speakerphone instead of simply using a handset and she rapidly fires off more meaningless character names than you’ll hear in “The Hobbit.” After pinpointing bin Laden’s hiding place, she spunkily uses a red marker on her boss’s glass wall each day to mark the number of days that go by until the military finally takes action. There’s a future for this gal in a workplace sitcom.
The movie opens with 9/11 voicemail messages from worried World Trade Center workers played over a black screen. Two years later, at an undisclosed location “black site,” CIA analyst Maya plays the good (or at least ambivalent) cop watching bad-cop coworker Dan (Jason Clarke) mistreat and berate a prisoner. Newcomer Maya has been told “there’s no shame if you watch from the monitor.” But like director Bigelow, Maya doesn’t turn away from the ugliness and brutality of tortures including sexual degradation, a towel-and-bucket form of waterboarding and locking a fetal-position prisoner inside a cramped wooden box.
The rest of the movie consists of “tradecraft” involving mobile surveillance, wiretaps and bribery that eventually leads Maya and company (as in “The Company”) to believe bin Laden is holed up in a compound less than a mile from Pakistan’s version of West Point. James Gandolfini cameos as the unnamed (but not very Leon-Panetta-like) CIA director Maya impresses with her crass one-of-the-guys confidence.
The partially night-vision raid on bin Laden’s compound is first-person-shooter suspenseful, with even unarmed women (but pointedly no children) taking some American bullets. Storywise, it’s hard not to wonder why Pakistani forces, or at least local police, don’t show up right away when two helicopters drop in (one quite literally) and the shooting and explosions commence. No reference is made to possible payoffs or political deals that may have given US forces enough time to get ‘er done and get out. But because an earlier scene showed a Kuwaiti informant receiving a Lamborghini from Uncle Sam for providing nothing more than a phone number (your tax dollars at work!), it’s hard not to wonder if some Pakistani higher-up was given a similar token of appreciation for turning a blind eye on the big night.
Actual footage of Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama is seen only briefly on TV screens, including a snippet of Obama telling Steve Kroft on “60 Minutes” that “America doesn’t torture.” The movie’s title, military slang for the 12:30am time of the raid, strangely is never used in the film or explained. One of the main themes in Alexandre Desplat’s score sounds a little too James Bondish, which undercuts the movie’s credibility almost as much as having a protagonist who is given to pronouncements such as “I’m gonna smoke everybody involved in this op, and then I’m gonna kill bin Laden.” After someone notes that “it’s her against the world,” all that’s missing is Maya doing a Ripley suit-up and striking a picturesque rifle-bearing pose.
In some ways, “Zero Dark Thirty” is a depressingly “too soon” Hollywoodized account of a still ongoing dismal period in American history, and a story that still seems incomplete. “You don’t want to be the last one standing holding a dog collar when the oversight committee comes,” Dan helpfully advises Maya at one point. And those two are supposed to be the good guys.