Aside from having a title that is almost impossible to remember, Zero Dark Thirty is a thoroughly unremarkable, though gripping, movie. Purportedly a dramatization of one woman’s obsessive efforts to track down and kill Osama bin Laden, it feels like little better than an inflated episode of NCIS. While early torture scenes have caused some controversy, there’s nothing to get upset about, because in true Hollywood fashion, another powerful subject has been reduced to acceptable, immediately effective formula.
One cliché follows another: the neophyte agent who sees things more clearly and deeply than anyone else; the rough, tough macho agents who nonetheless can be persuaded to help our heroine; the skeptical higher officials; the ruthless, larger-than-life villains. Familiar content is given equally hackneyed form: the fragmented, sloppy, in your face camerawork; the punchy, often unintelligible dialog delivered with leaden seriousness, and of course, the concluding sequence treated as suspense, even though we know what will happen. There’s even a guest appearance by that staple of dramatic convenience, the starry-eyed underling who “accidentally” uncovers a crucial bit of information at just the right moment. It isn’t bad, just utterly formulaic.
With such stock characters and situations, horrendous, real events become comfortingly familiar and fixable. If you didn’t know who bin Laden was, for example, Maya (Jessica Chastain) would come off as an obsessive, borderline nut case. There is no effort to understand anything, just to manipulate the viewer. As a result, the movie inadvertently exposes American foreign policy as cheap melodrama projected on to the world. Of course, in Hollywood’s usual audience flattering manner, we know Maya is correct, so we can sympathize with her through all the contrived conflicts. There is nothing about her, however, that is particularly sympathetic. All Kathryn Bigelow and company had to do was pour the tragedy of 9/11 and the farce of American responses to it into a familiar bottle. The results work as nerve jangling suspense, but then so does rush hour on the San Diego Freeway.
Put it this way. Perhaps my description of the American response to 9/11 as a farce is unfair. Maybe there were countless efforts, some more effective than others, to deal with the situation. Maybe, but Zero Dark Thirty does not present them. It’s a matter of seeing it Maya’s way or accepting bureaucratic bumbling. Everything is turned into a safe mode of simplified conflict, with one clear head triumphing over the muddle around her. That formula undeniably makes for emotional involvement. It doesn’t make a particularly distinctive or insightful movie, however. With one exception: the film ends on its most powerful moment, a long close-up on Maya, after events have successfully concluded. The grief, uncertainty and exhaustion on Chastain’s face says more than all the attenuated action and dramatic posturing that precedes it. If the rest of the film demonstrated such imaginative understanding, it would be worthy of respect. As it is, it’s worthy only of your dollar.