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The Procedural Drama

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Zero Dark Thirty
Starring Jessica Chastain, Chris Pratt, Jason Clarke, Joel Edgerton

What makes a great movie? It’s not always easy to put into words, which is a challenge, since my job is writing about film. Often times it’s the intangibles that make the difference between something that is very well done and something exceptional. Little things you can’t always put your finger on. That is what I exhaustively struggled with after seeing the new thriller “Zero Dark Thirty.” It’s a very good film, one that’s being discussed as the frontrunner in several major film competitions as the best picture of the year. Yet, I’m having trouble agreeing with that assessment.

Expectations can often be an albatross around the neck of a film. After hearing praise being heaped upon the latest from Oscar-winner Kathryn Bigelow (“The Hurt Locker”), it was difficult not to expect something grand. While “Zero Dark Thirty” is a very well-executed thriller, it’s not a particularly engaging one.

The film chronicles the 10-year hunt for Osama bin Laden and the CIA operative who makes the search her personal priority. Maya (Jessica Chastain) is a focused and driven agent who tirelessly works to find connections that will bring them to the terrorist leader. The film opens with an exceptionally clever way at handling 9/11 and the impact it had on the nation. Within two minutes, that unmistakable sense of tragedy and loss permeated the theater.

Then, it cuts ahead a few years to the interrogation of a suspected al Qaeda operative. An interrogation that features some brutal techniques and some downright disgusting treatment. Much like “The Hurt Locker,” Bigelow doesn’t try to over-dramatize these moments or heighten them. She lets the stark imagery and horrid behavior speak for itself: watching another man beaten and water-boarded. It’s an uncomfortable sight.  What’s just as disconcerting is how the characters inflicting this violence seem unaffected. Their job is to extract information, and they sink to terrible depths to try and unearth it.  There’s some real impact to these scenes; it paints the protagonist in a particularly unpleasant light.

As the hunt continues, the audience is taken through a series of scenes and characters, never really holding long enough to be invested in any of them. Maya joins a team searching for leads in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The amount of data they have to sort through and dots they need to connect are staggering. “Zero Dark Thirty” does a great job of making the manhunt seem monumental. The difficulties involved, from gathering raw data to dealing with the politics of the war on terror, create a series of obstacles that Maya must clear. On top of it all, Maya and her colleagues become targets for terrorist cells, which makes navigating the territory much more difficult.

I liked this movie. It’s very well done, but it’s sorely lacking in a few areas. The procedural style Bigelow chose for the story has some benefits: It’s melodrama-free and does not spend time weighing judgments on the characters or their actions. This isn’t a morality tale; in fact, it’s pretty much the opposite of a morality tale. There are no morals here, just flawed human beings with a job to do and almost zero apprehension in the techniques they employ to see it done. Often times the characters seeking out the terrorists seem remarkably similar in their ruthlessness. Yet, there is no real humanity to them.

Jessica Chastain is a fine actress, but her role feels strangely familiar. Maybe if I hadn’t seen Claire Danes in “Homeland” Chastain would have felt more original. The determined young operative who pushes herself to the limits to find a target has been done. Maya’s only real character trait is persistence; she has very little to do other than be determined.  There’s so little fragility or vulnerability to her; she’s practically a robot. Even in the film’s final moments when they give her that moment of release, it feels obligatory and poorly timed. Bigelow spends the final frames trying to tell us that this is one woman’s story, but the rest of the film is a scattershot and often schizophrenic.

As a procedural drama, “Zero Dark Thirty” works. It’s a fascinating look at the massive effort staged to hunt down one man. The third act is almost perfect. There, we briefly meet the team tasked with storming the compound where bin Laden was holed up. Chris Pratt is by far the standout performance in this movie as a Navy SEAL member and serves as the only relatable character. He has a small arc in the third act which feels more human and more complete than anything else in the film.  I think that’s what I was missing: something or someone to relate to.

As an American, I understand the outrage brought up by 9/11. To a degree, I understand the mania surrounding bin Laden’s manhunt. The movie does such a good job of detailing the what, but it’s piss-poor in delivering me the “who.” Who are these people?  Why do they do what they do?

Bigelow’s approach to telling this story is less emotionally effective and more akin to a documentary-style reenactment than a story-driven narrative. Its random scenes strung together sometimes jumping several years. There’s no cohesion and very little for the audience to invest in.

I couldn’t help but draw comparisons to Ben Affleck’s excellent “Argo,” a movie that took real-life scenarios and made it into a compelling thriller. Where “Zero Dark Thirty” pulls back and is blunt in its approach, “Argo” added a little bit of cheese and tried to force some added drama to the proceedings. Each movie represents two distinct types of storytelling—almost a litmus test for the type of movies people prefer. Do you like the deadpan, stark type of story that Bigelow presents—unpretentious, direct and melodrama free? Or Affleck’s more audience-friendly traditional storytelling, complete with a runway chase scene at the end for added impact? I prefer the latter. I like the soft approach Bigelow took to tell this story, but it feels so removed emotionally I found myself uninterested in the characters and felt no investment in their mission.

There’s a lot to like in “Zero Dark Thirty,” but it’s a movie that feels like it could have tried harder. Technically, it’s exceptionally well done. Emotionally, it’s pretty vacant.
Sure, you will have a strong reaction to the opening scene and depictions of torture.  And the final act where they storm the compound is pretty thrilling.  However, the middle is just a collection of moments that will do little to draw in audiences. Like the title, “Zero Dark Thirty” is nebulous and undefined.

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