First it was suspected to be a cheesy campaign ad for President Obama's reelection which led to its release date to be pushed until after the election; then there were multiple rumors from both sides of the political spectrum that secret CIA intel was shared with the filmmakers; and upon its release it was praised by conservatives as showing our intelligence and special operator forces positively while liberals decried what they called glorification of torture, organizing boycotts which have pretty much shut it down for awards season.
While I can see where both sides are coming from, the reality is that Zero Dark Thirty is a meticulously reported, gritty telling of the hunt for
Opening with audio of terrified 911 calls from 9/11, ZDT jumps ahead two years to a secret interrogation site where a suspected Al Qaeda member is being shown an unpleasant time. Watching the show is CIA analyst Maya (Oscar-nominated Jessica Chastain playing a fictionalized version of a person whose identity must obviously be kept under wraps.) Eventually the prisoner spills intel which eventually leads after several dead ends, detours and double-crosses to discovering where Osama was hiding, culminating in the climactic recreation of the SEAL Team 6 strike that put three shots in his dome.
Screenwriter Mark Boal, who also wrote The Hurt Locker, brings his journalist eye to the script which has its pluses and minuses. On the plus side, the details feel authentic though it's a little mind-boggling to see the assault which opened with one of the choppers crashing into a wall not seeming to put the entire town and Osama's compound on alert. (While resisting the temptation to Hollywood up the action is laudable, it's almost ludicrous to watch while thinking, "No one heard a flipping helicopter crash in the middle of the night?")
On the minus side of the ledger, by chugging through procedural details and random bombings spread over eight years without as much as a hairstyle change on Maya to mark the passage of time, it never felt like it was going someplace specific. Knowing going in that they find their target isn't the problem, it's that the process isn't exciting, ending up generally dry and detached like The Hurt Locker, but without a rich central character to follow.
Chastain is very good, but hampered by a woefully underwritten role - an archtype of the driven, lonely woman, bucking the Old Boys Club Establishment who won't believe her which is very familiar after a couple of seasons of Homeland, except Claire Danes' Carrie is mentally ill. We never know of Maya's life other than an interesting factoid that she was recruited out of high school, but can't discuss as to why? Because she spoke 15 languages or had bitching red hair? Who knows? Why not make up something - anything - to humanize her? Because it wouldn't be accurate? We'd forgive some embroidery in service of giving us a rooting interest, guys.
By being simultaneously telling its story from 30 inches away and 30,000 feet up Zero Dark Thirty ends up not satisfying those seeking minutia or a comprehensive overview. The odd thing is that they were getting ready to roll on this movie as just a procedural about the ongoing hunt for OBL when events suddenly dropped a tidy ending in their laps, but I can't imagine how a movie about people looking for World Enemy #1 that fades to black with a title card reading "And the hunt continues..." would be very satisfying.
Score: 7/10. Rent it.