Bagging bin Laden: Zero Dark Thirty

Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty.

Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty.

The critics have spoken (well, some of them, anyway), declaring the overrated Zero Dark Thirty the most important movie of the year. I wish I could agree, but I don’t. It’s about the 10-year hunt for Osama bin Laden, which makes it important. But it’s the theme that earns stature and attention, not the movie. Movies must move, and this one just lies there like a stack of paper from a classified government filing cabinet. Like The Hurt Locker, the previous film by the overrated team of writer Mark Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow, it’s not really a movie. It’s not really a documentary, either, because it assigns names to characters that may or may not be real and pretends to have a narrative arc. For lack of a better tag, I guess it’s journalism, which is a completely different thing. Journalism is the orderly collecting and dispensing of facts, not filmmaking. Zero Dark Thirty has the facts (or at least Ms. Bigelow’s interpretation of them), but there’s nothing progressive or original about the way they are dramatized. And we know how it ends already. They killed him.

Supposedly based on first-hand accounts of actual events (although who is willing to step forward and deny them under oath?), at least two-thirds of a movie that is exhausting to begin with is a dense dossier on CIA activity. It goes so far back that you hear the anguished voices of victims in the 9/11 attacks on the collapsing World Trade Center, then cuts abruptly to two years later, when a rookie agent named Maya (Jessica Chastain) arrives in the Middle East to observe how her colleagues extract information from their prisoners in a manner that goes against every peace treaty known to man. Sparing no detail too dark or heinous to protect the faint of heart, Ms. Bigelow zooms in on the intricacies of waterboarding, sleep deprivation for 96 hours, forced wearing of dog collars and other severe tortures inflicting agony and humiliation on al Qaeda prisoners, then bogs the film down in a lot of techno-jargon and aerial shots of the tribal territories of Afghanistan, shot in locations as far afield as Jordan, India and Langley, Va. After long, drawn-out scenes depicting the capture of Abu Faraj al-Libbi and the track bombing that destroyed the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad, the film catalogues both al Qaeda and American fatalities, including a mother of three played by the marvelous Jennifer Ehle. It takes a lot of time before the thrilling final scenes of the fatal showdown in bin Laden’s hideout in Pakistan on May 2, 2011, when a team of Navy SEALs referred to as “canaries” breaks in, guns down women and children, and finds and liquidates their target. The problem with an overload of research, both documented and assumed for dramatic license, is how to blend historic facts in some way that is more interesting and cinematic than people sitting around conference tables talking. It’s a problem that also plagues Lincoln, and neither Steven Spielberg nor Ms. Bigelow has found a way to move beyond those stale, static limitations. Day-to-day routines of CIA operatives following every lead are interspersed with TV broadcasts, cellphone transmissions and endless faces relaying information. I hate to admit it, but I found dozing off irresistible.

Dullness was less of a problem, however, than the fake premise that the search, location, invasion and murder of the world’s most despised villain since Adolf Hitler was due almost exclusively to the obsessive persistence of a girl named Maya. It’s her detective work that gets her superior removed from field duty and sent home from the Middle East, convinces the government to chip in unbelievable sums of money to keep the investigation active, and leads to the safe house in Abbottabad where bin Laden is found and killed. I have no doubt that there were both women and men assigned by the CIA to this tense 10-year ordeal, but there is no evidence that it was the exclusive work of one woman. If such a person existed, she would be the most famous person in the world, a best-selling author and talk-show sensation, and land on the cover of Time. Yet Ms. Bigelow’s inducement to turn a group effort into a feminist triumph is the fictional leap of faith Zero Dark Thirty hinges on. The conceit of the movie is that it was one woman with a driving passion—and a young, inexperienced field operative to boot—who practically single-handedly discovered the evidence and masterminded the plan that led to bin Laden’s assassination. We know nothing about Maya, and Ms. Chastain’s stoic, textbook approach to the role does nothing to illuminate or enlighten. I admire the film’s austere night-vision camerawork and precision timing of the raid on the bin Laden compound, as well as the Boal-Bigelow team’s resistance to embellish the narrative with a Hollywood love story or a history of everyone who worked on the world’s most daunting manhunt. But as a realistic political thriller about Americans in harm’s way it is not half as suspenseful or entertaining as Argo. We may never know the truth about how we found bin Laden, but I still believe what we do know makes a strong enough story on its own without Wonder Woman.

rreed@observer.com

ZERO DARK THIRTY

Running Time 157 minutes

Written by Mark Boal

Directed by
Kathryn Bigelow

Starring Chris Pratt,
Jessica Chastain
and Joel Edgerton