Zero Dark Thirty is a skillful - and somewhat cautious - look at military bureaucracy and power.
It's both hampered and elevated by its dependence on authenticity.
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow and written by Mark Boal, Zero Dark Thirty traces the long, arduous pursuit of Osama bin Laden.
Beginning in 2003, Zero Dark Thirty focuses on one intrepid CIA analyst Maya (Jessica Chastain) and her dogged life on the frustrating trail. Maya comes to realize the possibilities of following a bin Laden courier to lead to the target himself.
She has to keep grinding, as others think the trail leads nowhere, as so many previous trails have. Her unrelenting commitment often is thankless.
The first two hours of the film go at a steady pace.
Then Bigelow raises her film a level in the last 40 minutes when SEAL team 6 makes their assault on a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, where they hope bin Laden is living. Maya comes to insist that he is.
The attack sequence is shot through the green murk of military night vision. It's compelling, memorable cinema.
Jessica Chastain is a fine, proficient actress, but her character of Maya is limited. Rooney Mara (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, 2011) was originally supposed to play Maya. She would have provided more edge to the character. Chastain's Maya has her edges honed off.
Chastain says that she writes a backstory for the characters she plays. In Zero Dark Thirty it's kept mostly off the screen. Maya is persevering and has one memorable vulgar line. But her character seems sanitized.
Her boss Joseph Bradley (Kyle Chandler) says about Maya, "Washington says she's a killer." But there's no hint of that.
In actuality, the person Maya is based on seems more edgy. It is reported that when she received an award for her work on tracking down bin Laden, she sent out an email saying others who were favorably cited should not share the award, because they didn't deserve it.
Now that's edge. That kind of bitterness/egotism is nowhere to be seen in the movie's Maya.
Maya is no Carrie (Claire Danes) in tv's Homeland. She lacks her combustible sensibility.
Carrie has more than ten conflicting characteristics. Maya has one - she's persistent.
Screenwriter Boal says he's never seen Homeland. He might take a look.
Kathryn Bigelow is celebrated for her suspenseful action sequences, but in her films Bigelow also seems to like to have one character who almost wears "kill me" on his or her back. In The Hurt Locker, it was the psychiatrist.
In Zero Dark Thirty it's an ebullient optimist who is treated almost tritely.
In lip service to authenticity there are several lines of dialogue that seem as though they may have been spoken by actual figures. One is by Dan (Jason Clarke) who speaks about "my monkeys," but it's left hanging.
Another that must have been actual is when a SEAL team member in a helicopter talks about self-help guru Tony Robbins. It's too dumb not to be actual.
Maybe Maya could have used some Tony Robbins' advice.
In Zero Dark Thirty, the action is high velocity, but much of the characterization seems classified.
Even in an American film, character shouldn't be top secret.
For a change of pace, you might want to listen to interviews that I conducted in the 70s and 80s, some of which were published in my book Voices from the Set: The Film Heritage Interviews (2000).
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