Zero Dark Thirty (directed by Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker) is about the CIA’s manhunt for Osama Bin Laden. The film centers around the sharp CIA agent Maya (Jessica Chastain) who spearheads the investigation. Zero Dark Thirty is somber, intense, and well-made but for some reason it left me feeling a bit cold. It doesn't have the energy or raw intensity of The Hurt Locker and I found it harder to connect to the characters. We really only get to know Maya.
One thing this movie does really well is to keep the narrative grounded firmly in reality. It does a good job of portraying how difficult and frustrating the search for Bin Laden was. Though the movie follows a linear narrative, the search for Bin Laden was certainly circuitous. There was not one eureka moment but a series of small steps forward with many steps backwards. While many movies shy away from uncertainties to keep to a clear and clean narrative, this one really embraced them and it strengthened the movie because it kept the search realistic. Even as we get closer and closer to finding Bin Laden in the movie, we never get that it’s a sure thing.
There’s been quite a lot of controversy over various aspects of the torture scenes in the movie: that they weren't accurate because the CIA didn't use them to find Bin Laden and that the movie promotes the use of torture to extract information. The torture scenes in the movie are intense and difficult to watch but it doesn't seem like the movie is promoting the use of torture to get information. Ultimately, it is unclear how useful and reliable the information the characters get from the interrogations are.
There’s a secondary storyline to the manhunt that doesn't come through as well: the changing role of the CIA and how that has affected its priorities. We get hints of it from Maya’s bosses but it’s mostly pushed to the side when the search starts making progress.
In terms of performances, this movie really belongs to Jessica Chastain. As Maya, you watch her find her voice as the movie progresses. She starts off as the newest CIA agent in the Pakistan office who stands quietly in the interrogation room to the only person in a room full of CIA leaders who has complete conviction that they have found Osama Bin Laden. While we see Maya find her voice, I wish the movie had spent more time on how she formed her views. We see her looking conflicted during earlier interrogations but how her views change on interrogations as time progresses is not really shown.
Rounding out the rest of the cast, there is Jason Clarke and Jennifer Ehle as CIA agents, Kyle Chandler as Maya’s boss, and Chris Pratt (Parks and Recreation) as a Navy SEAL. I’m a big fan of Parks and Recreation, but it was a bit distracting to see Pratt in the movie. Pratt provides some levity but doesn't seem to quite fit the tone of the rest of the movie.
Zero Dark Thirty is a somber portrayal of a manhunt. It is intense, draining, and worth seeing but it's missing something that I can't quite put my finger on.