‘Zero Dark Thirty' fails to capture drama of historical event

by Varun Bhuchar | 2/26/13 11:00pm

A few months before I came to Dartmouth, I turned on my television one Sunday night to find the cable news networks in a buzz over an unexpected announcement from President Barack Obama. That buzz turned into a frenzy after it was reported that the press conference would announce the death of Osama bin Laden. For anybody old enough to remember 9/11, the news, although not unexpected, was flabbergasting. After all, this was a man who had eluded us for nearly 10 years. He was as mythical as the boogeyman at this point, but yet here was the news of his death.

When the inevitable movie adaptation of these events arrived, I thought there would be no better people to handle it than director Kathryn Bigelow and her go-to screenwriter, former journalist Mark Boal. Their previous effort, "The Hurt Locker" (2009), is a masterful, suspenseful film with elements of a procedural. Yet, through a combination of events that may not have been in their control, "Zero Dark Thirty" (2012) fails to be anywhere as dramatic and cathartic as the event it's based on.

The film frames the hunt for bin Laden through the eyes of CIA agent Maya (Jessica Chastain), a relatively untested rookie who spends a good chunk of the next decade testing her sanity and dodging assassination attempts in order to find the man responsible for the worst terrorist attack in American history.

A few weeks ago, I wrote in my review for "A Royal Affair" (2012) that films based on historical events need to straddle a fine line between reality and the drama inherent in creating a good story. "Zero Dark Thirty" is no exception to this rule, but, in an attempt to find this balance, it achieves too much of the former and not enough of the latter. As a result, what we end up getting is a two-and-a-half-hour reenactment fit for the History Channel. As such, the problem falls into a few general categories.

First is the film's focus on Maya. I like Chastain, I really do. I love the fact that she's toiled away in obscurity for years and is now finally getting her big break. I think she's a wonderful actress and she did all she could in the role, but ultimately Maya is a terrible character to base a movie of this magnitude on. By her own admission, Chastain's inability to meet the woman on whom the character is based because of her status as an active CIA agent meant she had to improvise when portraying the character. This shows in the film as we get someone who's more of a soulless automaton than a relatable anchor. Attempts to humanize her fail horribly, such as giving her a generic friend who adds as much to the narrative as a random team of dancing lobsters would.

The pacing of the film is also completely off. With a run of 157 minutes, "Zero Dark Thirty" had plenty of time to develop a thoughtful arc of events that could play out during this time. However, the narrative begins in 2003 and about an hour later, we're already in 2008. Some years are glossed over while others are given way too much time. Furthermore, the aimless narrative that worked so well for "The Hurt Locker" has no place here, and ultimately ends up taking away from the more salient qualities of the movie. This bungling of time allotted to the narrative becomes evident toward the end of the film, when the actual raid on bin Laden's compound is shown.

The problem with the raid sequence, however, is that it falls into the hole that all historical movies are supposed to avoid. It is a 30-minute scene designed to recreate the raid as faithfully as possible, but such attention to detail is completely unnecessary in the grand scheme of things. We all know the ending to the film and the intended suspense the scene is supposed to bring never really materializes. Instead, it becomes a showcase for Bigelow, one of the most capable action directors working in the business today. While technically impressive, it remains a huge brick wall in dragging the film across the finish line.

Finally, no discussion about "Zero Dark Thirty" would be complete without talking about the torture. Was torture used to capture bin Laden? Maybe, or maybe not. Arguing for either one is ridiculous, as the film doesn't intend to be the authority on such matters. However, where "Zero Dark Thirty" succeeds is getting you thinking about the ambiguity of these methods; this is a hallmark of any good piece of art.

"Zero Dark Thirty" will be screened on Friday at Loew Auditorium.