Zero Dark Thirty should by all rights have been a terrific film. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow, who won an Oscar for her war drama The Hurt Locker, starring up-and-comer Jessica Chastain, so good in The Debt and Take Shelter, and based on the story of the hunt for Osama bin Laden, on paper there seems to be no way that Zero Dark Thirty could fail to be a riveting, thrilling ride. However, it manages to be, shockingly, boring.
It’s the story of Maya, based on the real-life woman who sniffed out the leads that led to the assassination of the world’s most infamous terrorist. The opening twenty minutes are electric, a horrific torture sequence featuring waterboarding and the systemic degradation of a prisoner. At one point, a dog’s collar is tied around his neck and he is taken for a “walk” in the filth of his prison – it’s almost unwatchably nightmarish.
Zero Dark Thirty has been criticized for supposed glorification of torture – the picture is more complicated than that. Torture is presented in strikingly neutral fashion: it is shown unflinchingly in gruesome detail, but its usefulness in extracting information is never doubted. The film’s most successful character is that of the torturer himself – he switches from a brute in jeans to a courteous agent in a suit, and the transition is total. Chillingly, this is just a job to him, indicating the extent to which torture became normalized in the US intelligence service.
The lack of narrative pacing is the most significant problem, especially given that it is packaged as a thriller. The film includes many repetitive scenes of people shouting at each other or talking intensely about “the courier”. The middle segment drags interminably. Admittedly, there is probably a verisimilitude to this – if Bigelow is attempting to make the audience empathise with the monotony of intelligence work, she succeeds admirably. However, this is really no justification for making a tedious film.
Worse, there is a nigh-total absence of characterisation. Chastain is good when the writers give her something to work with, which is rarely. Maya is strikingly opaque – an engine of an agent, she is driven relentlessly by one goal. No backstory is given, no personal life is even hinted at. This makes it nearly impossible to engage with her emotionally.
We know the ending ahead of time – needless to say; this is not necessarily a problem, but a few twists or obstacles would have heightened the tension. It’s very linear – Maya becomes convinced she knows what to do, and does it. Events move slowly: a friend I saw the film with fell asleep and woke up half an hour later, but so little had happened that he didn’t need to ask what he’d missed.
There was always a chance for the film to redeem itself with a killer ending – Bigelow has in the past proven her ability to mount a stunning action scene, and the raid on bin Laden’s compound in Abbottobad provides the perfect opportunity for a superb finale. However, the hyper-realist use of shaky cam and green filters to mimic night vision goggles make it hard to work out what is happening. Again, while this is probably very true to life, it does not make for gripping cinema. In fairness the final shot is excellent, and is a point where Chastain’s ability is allowed to shine through.
Zero Dark Thirty has been ludicrously overpraised by most of the critical establishment – although it has the odd flash of brilliance, the whole is dramatically inert and far, far too long.