It's almost impossible to review Zero Dark Thirty without your own personal politics skewing your objectivity. It's even more problematic when you take into account the film's opening disclaimer: "The following motion picture is based on first hand accounts of actual events."
I try to review every film as a piece of entertainment, nothing more, and this statement creates a conundrum. Is Kathryn Bigelow's follow-up to the Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker a documentary or, like so many other films that have plastered that tagline in bold type before their openings, a fictionalized version of events? Certainly, it tries to portray itself as a factual account of one of the most undercover intelligence and military operations the United States has ever embarked on - a decade-long manhunt for the mastermind behind the September 11th terrorist attacks, Osama bin Laden. It even opens with heart-wrenching calls, mixed together in a cacophony of noise, from that fateful day.
How you review Zero Dark Thirty then depends on how much of it you take as factual, and how much you view it as a piece of entertainment. This is not the place for crackpot conspiracy theories about 9/11 being an inside job, or who really killed bin Laden, and anyone thinking of leaving a comment of that nature on this review should be warned that TypePad logs your IP address when it notifies me of new comments. I will have no qualms about posting said IP address on every dark corner of the internet. This is not a political discussion, whether you're a patriotic American or the opposite; this is a movie review.
Having said that, Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty is, at times, a fascinating, riveting film, but I can't help but feel its almost universal praise is due more to patriotism than objectivity as a piece of entertainment.
Whatever you think of the righteousness of the War on Terror, nobody can argue that it's a different kind of war. Zero Dark Thirty does a good job of portraying that. Maya never sets foot on a battlefield or stares down soldiers from an opposing force. The opposing force works in secrecy, using members of its army as weapons under the impressions they will become martyrs for a greater cause. Maya does a good portion of her work in front of a computer screen, analyzing photos, voice recordings, videotaped interrogations, and other pieces of intelligence gathered in the field or through covert technology.
It's practically the exact opposite of The Hurt Locker, which portrayed the adrenaline rush of combat situations for its lead character. A world like Maya's would be inconceivable to Jeremy Renner's William James, who couldn't even manage daily life with his wife and child or grocery shopping.
My fear going into the film, however, was that it would pander to the patriotic. There's no doubt that, for Americans, the death of Osama bin Laden was a moment of celebration. At that moment, when President Barack Obama addressed the nation to announce "Justice has been served," it didn't matter what your politics were. I know both conservatives and liberals, and we all felt a sense of relief. We knew that terrorism still existed and we would never be free of it, but we still all felt a little bit safer. Regardless of how you think it happened, or who was most responsible, the fact remained: bin Laden's death was an emotional moment for all Americans.
The danger in making a movie like this is to play on that sense of patriotism that terrible events like 9/11 inspire in us, or the morbid feelings of satisfaction the death of the man behind it did. Bigelow falls into the trap several times, most notably when Jessica Chastain sets her jaw and says with conviction, "I'm going to find bin Laden, and I'm going to kill him" as if she were the Little Engine That Could.
There are several lines of hokey dialogue in this vain, and it's disappointing because it detracts from the serious tone of the picture and ventures too far into action movie territory. It trivializes the gravity of the task at hand - finding a man who couldn't be found, despite running the world's largest terrorist network - with the same kind of clichés you might see Bruce Willis mutter in the upcoming Die Hard film.
Whatever faults the film has are not found in the final thirty minutes, however. Bigelow does an excellent job putting the viewer there on the ground with the team as they infiltrate bin Laden's compound in Pakistan. There are certainly no action movie clichés here. No doors are kicked in by buff soldiers who run in guns blazing and take out all the bad guys who have terrible aim. The only explosions are used to open locked doors and destroy a downed helicopter. Wisely, Bigelow doesn't even linger too long on the mission's most emotional moment. She doesn't revel in showing the body of the enemy, or have the soldiers celebrate on the spot. They take a brief moment to reflect on it, then quickly get back to work, securing intel and the screaming women and children in the complex who witness the operation.
It's not until the team returns to the base that any sense of relief and celebration occurs, and even then it's mostly subdued. A joyous shout, and a little rough-housing occur, but no beers are cracked and Kid Rock isn't blaring in the background over shots of the American flag waving in the breeze.
Still, I couldn't shake those earlier moments when she vowed revenge, and they robbed even the final scenes of their intended impact, if only a little. Zero Dark Thirty is by no means or any stretch of the imagination a bad film, but it has an identity crisis. Bigelow seemed unsure of whether to make it a factual drama or a ficionalized one. Ultimately, it's nowhere near as good, however true or untrue it may be, as her previous film, and certainly not best picture material in my objective opinion.