After years of directing nondescript action films, Kathryn Bigelow exploded into prominence with her painful, suspenseful depiction of soldiers deployed in Iraq in The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow, USA 2008), which eventually took home Academy Awards for Best Picture, her own direction, and Mark Boal’s screenplay.* I was not so impressed with the film, which I found rather aimless and unsure of its own direction. However, I had high hopes for this film, both because of its critical success (finishing second for Best Director and third for Best Film at the National Society of Film Critics Awards and receiving nominations for both from the Online Film Critics Society) and because the subject matter would seem to lend itself well to the style that Bigelow developed through her time directing action films and her attempt at a “serious” dark picture in The Hurt Locker.
In the end, while it did not quite live up to its hype, Zero Dark Thirty was a very good film that perhaps needed nothing more than someone else to have final cut over Bigelow’s work to be excellent. It’s far from perfect, but it’s a film that’s definitely worth watching.
The biggest problem with the film is that, while much of it seems assured of its point, it loses its way inside its story for a few segments (most notably its ending). Much of the film is exploring the idea that everything had to go right to find Osama bin Laden—the situation had to have the right mix of analytical logic, passionate certainty, and luck, or else it failed. At first, there is definite passion but a lack of logic, and while the passion manages to generate a single name as a lead, it doesn’t get any further. Then, analysis and logic combine with passion to get a step closer, leading to a calculated risk believing in a would-be mole who turns out (after a black cat crosses the street—seriously) to be an enemy operative, luck working against the heroes again. Finally, everything comes together in the end. However, the film is so interested in its lead character, who is the embodiment of passion in its depiction, that it often loses sight of where it’s going, instead examining her.
The dynamics of passion, logic, and luck throughout were reminiscent of the triumvirate at the heart of Star Trek—the logic and reason of Spock, the passion and emotion of Leonard McCoy, and Captain Kirk’s integration of the two into a cohesive ability to diagnose risks and choose the proper course of action. However, Gene Roddenberry was smart enough to use a lead character who represented the theoretical perfect mix of his two elements, where Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal instead use the embodiment of passion, the Dr. McCoy of their drama. Certainly she is an interesting character, particularly her position as a woman who is more determined and passionate about killing bin Laden at any cost than the men around her and has no more sympathy for the prisoners being tortured at the opening than anyone else. Bigelow and Boal also do an excellent job of exploring this character, including the brilliant moment when a prisoner tells her, “Your partner is a monster,” and begs for her help, only to have her respond that the prisoner can help himself by giving them the information they want. The problem is that the opening segments of the film (perhaps the first 40 minutes) and the ending spend all of their energy on this exploration, ignoring the larger point of the film.
Visually, Bigelow and cinematographer Greig Fraser essentially establish two visual styles and move back and forth between them throughout the film. In the “field” shots, we have the yellow-hued dusty backgrounds, bright lights, and shaky hand-held camerawork that Bigelow and Barry Ackroyd used throughout The Hurt Locker, making these scenes more tense, closed-in, and realistic-feeling than they otherwise might be, but not taking the shaky camera to a distracting extreme like in Beasts of the Southern Wild (Benh Zeitlin, USA 2012). Meanwhile, “office” scenes (for lack of a better term), are shot with mostly static cameras, low-key lighting, and more of a blue hue. The combination emphasizes the difference between the passion driving the fieldwork and the logic and reason behind the officework, the tension between which is at the heart of the film. Meanwhile, they add noticeable but unobtrusive touches bringing luck into the equation: the black cat that crosses the path before a surprise car-bomb explosion is small and in the foreground far from the center of our attention in the background, while the horseshoes the SEALs use for entertainment seem secondary to their discussions prior to the final raid on bin Laden’s compound. All told, it’s simple but effective visual work. It’s not groundbreaking, but it’s thoughtful and well-done.
Meanwhile, the acting throughout the film is superb. Jessica Chastain is an absolute coup of a casting job, performing a role that could easily be over-the-top with a perfect amount of restraint befitting a by-all-accounts intelligent CIA operative recruited straight out of high school. Her angelic beauty and seeming fragility are also perfect for the part, providing a character who would be viewed as non-threatening by enemies and too weak by comrades until she proves otherwise. The other performers with a large amount of screen time—Jason Clarke as an older operative, Jennifer Ehle as a less competent but well-meaning older operative, Kyle Chandler as the boss they are able to push around until it results in a disaster, and Mark Strong as the replacement who finally gets the team to the right place—are all excellent but have little to do. Bigelow also wisely populates some of the smaller roles in a world with many, many characters who could easily remain faceless with some recognizable actors: James Gandolfini appears as the CIA director, Chris Pratt appears as one of the SEALs, Mark Valley appears as a pilot, and John Barrowman appears as one of the less enthusiastic defense analysts advising Gandolfini.
Much of the film did not have score, but the moments that did were uneven. Alexandre Desplat (who has become the composer du jour in Hollywood, seemingly) provided score that was effective in some scenes, but it was also intrusive in several others, to the point that it was, overall, a distraction.
In conclusion, Zero Dark Thirty was a very good film that simply had some problems with its focus. It could have been improved with a stronger editorial hand, perhaps, but that just isn’t present in modern-day Hollywood. Looper (Rian Johnson, USA/China 2012) is still my pick as best picture of 2012, but Zero Dark Thirty is considerably better than anything else I’ve seen from the year.
*If anyone else wonders, here’s how it did in the awards I prefer to the Oscars: It also won picture and director from the National Society of Film Critics and the Online Film Critics Society.