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Movie Review: Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

Posted By: Lawrence Napoli
Fri, 02/22/2013 - 13:33

Not Quite Dark Enough and Not What You’re Expecting

A Film Review of Zero Dark Thirty

By: Lawrence Napoli


How do you fight a war on terror?  Conventional warfare waged by the US government would have you believe that attacking the enemy on their home turf is not only the key to victory, but also a means of keeping the front lines of the fight far away from civilians in the homeland: the primary target for terror.  Unfortunately, the war on terror has been proven to be anything but a conventional conflict and so other strategies were employed such as targeting the leadership of terror cells and none were regarded as nefarious as Osama bin Laden.   Of course, terror cells exist to operate outside the influence of leadership so this strategy doesn’t directly prevent the loss of innocent lives.  However, the leaders have influence and information about their networks and the elimination/capture of these individuals provide a much needed morale booster because progress can’t exactly be disclosed to the media the way it has in wars past due to the classified nature of all operations.


The new weekend research project.

Zero Dark Thirty is a film based on accounts from several sources concerning the pursuit of OBL and it has been recognized as an Oscar front-runner due to the issues it raises concerning torture, the nature of terrorism and the various methods used to combat it.  It has also been maligned for inaccuracies, which appears to be the theme for this year’s Academy worthy film productions seeing how both Lincoln and Argo have been singled out for their dramatic skewing.  The fact is that nobody should be going to the cinema for a history lesson and anyone accepting dialogue from a Hollywood star as the gospel truth of what happened in real life ought to have their heads examined, but with the ever increasing sentiment of ignorance and apathy in American society, it’s a legitimate concern that some people might.  The fine line between fiction and fact is not going to be explored in this review, but my primary criticism to Mark Boal’s script is the severe lack of action and the fact that it grinds the overall pacing down to a slow crawl.  Granted, the central idea of this story is depicting how the importance of information gathered through interrogation, interviews, office work, data review, fact checking and various other unglamorous tasks were vital in revealing OBL, but if blurring the details was the order of the day, throwing in a couple more spec-ops sequences would have helped.


Don't be fooled, there's not much of this to be seen.

I don’t seem to find any exceptional artistic merit to this film outside of its subject matter.  Just about everything from the production value, to the cinematography, to the format of the story and the performance by the cast is standard fare.  That’s not to say that Zero Dark Thirty isn’t less than perfectly adequate, but when it comes to communicating the emotion this film left me with when I walked out of the theatre I can’t say anything other than “I saw it, I got it and now I’d like to see something more interesting thank you.”  It’s the same feeling of being unimpressed that I felt when I left The Hurt Locker.  There are simply better political thrillers out there (Enemy of the State, No Way Out, andAll the President’s Men).  There are more graphic depictions of torture (Hostel, The Last House on the Left, and Ichi the Killer).  There are more disturbing depictions of psychological trauma (Misery, Memento, and the original Manchurian Candidate).  Zero Dark Thirty is not any of these types of films, yet it has been celebrated and skyrocketed to the top of the Oscar contenders for somehow doing all these things well.  I disagree and I do not understand the enhanced credibility afforded to Kathryn Bigelow’s films because I find them to be lesser versions of other films involving similar subject matter.  Perhaps the Academy is catching wind of this seeing how she is not amongst the best directors nominated this year.  I put my money on there being less members of the Academy with an axe to grind with James Cameron.


Who's directing whom?

The only performance worth getting into is the one belonging to Jessica Chastain.  This actress has been coming out of the woodwork over the past 3 years with noteworthy performances in films such as The Help (2011), The Tree of Life (2011) and Lawless (2012).  I always said there seems to be a lack of serious American film actresses that can compete with the English K/Cates or anyone else from the UK, but Chastain certainly has the potential to take up Meryl Streep’s mantel.  However, her full skill set is not, I repeat NOT on showcase for Zero Dark Thirty.  The character she plays, Maya (who probably doesn’t really exist) is an enigma due to her lack of emotions outside of anger and petulance.  This makes her very difficult to identify with as a protagonist, but when it comes to seeing her as an anti-hero she lacks any semblance of charisma. 


"A" for effort, but a "B" for execution.

The reason she is nominated for best actress in this film is her keen ability to portray solemnity and frustration, two emotions in abundance for any in pursuit of OBL over the years.  The problem with this is that Maya undergoes zero transformation despite the ups and downs and the fluctuation in circumstances does not reflect any deviation in the character’s demeanor.  I sense there is more depth to Maya, but it seems as if that was too classified to show on the big screen.  As a result, Maya gives the distinct impression of being a very intelligent and capable woman, but is really just a spoiled, little brat with exceptional tunnel vision.  Perhaps these are the ideal characteristics to join the spook patrol for the CIA, but does not a compelling fictional character make for a dramatic film.      


Maya doesn't mingle with the jarheads much.

Zero Dark Thirty is easily the most underwhelming Oscar nominated film this year which is a jagged little pill to swallow considering the mystery and intrigue surrounding the hunt for OBL.  We, the people will never get the full story or anything close to resembling the actual truth regarding this situation, but it is an interesting fiction the powers that be have allowed the mob to indulge in that it’s not particularly interesting in the first place.  There are several instances where I sense any of the Jack Ryan films attempting to be channeled, but these moments ultimately come up way short when it comes to entertainment value.  What’s interesting to note is how its box office performance reflects the decent, but not great quality of this film.  Budgeted at $40 million with earnings just over $89 million is far from failure, but equally far from phenomenal.  I would have thought more Americans would have been more interested in a story about how public enemy #1 was finally dispatched.