The hunt for Osama bin Laden begins here in Zero Dark Thirty. This film chronicals a decade of CIA investigations for America’s most wanted. In this post 9/11 climate, we watch Maya (Jessica Chastain), a determined CIA operative, drawn deeper into the hunt for Osama. She tirelessly follows lead after lead of Al Qaeda members, piecing together the bread trail. Her quest takes us through the street of Afghanistan, through the torture cells of undisclosed CIA locations and up into their executive offices where the decisions are made, until finally the actual safe-house of Osama bin Laden, where this film reaches its inevitable conclusion.
Zero Dark Thirty replicates a similar docudrama war aesthetic seen in the director’s previous film, Hurt Locker. This style works well with the genre, adding validity to the drama, as though the audience are spectators in the thick of the conflict. However, unlike Hurt Locker’s rather focused character portrait, Zero Dark Thirty is an event film. It focuses on the events, the facts (as much as a Hollywood film can) in an extremely objective fashion. Because of this there isn’t much room for characterisation or scenes of empathy. The film is consistently surging forward, trying desperately to wade through a decade of CIA searching. In doing so the narrative feels restrained with rigid a check list of events to adhere to.
Furthermore, this lack of characterisation is never more present than in our lead, Maya. While Jessica Chastain does a great job with what she’s given, and while there are certainly some rather emotive scenes pitting her against her superiors, it still just isn’t enough. The character is shaped in such a way that it fulfils a story purpose and nothing more, like a hollow shell. She is a driven woman of action, a lone female cowboy in this Wild West, but very little else. For two hours and thirty minutes we learn absolutely nothing of her personal life, other than how much of a workaholic she is. It almost feels like the subject matter has given Kathryn Bigelow an excuse not to develop the character whatsoever, that we as an audience will automatically empathise with a protagonist coming after Osama bin Laden. In fact you feel far more of an affinity with Maya’s CIA colleague Dan (Jason Clarks), who you see on and off for less than half the film.
On the whole Zero Dark Thirty feels too long, and despite the fact that it is condensing a 10 year period, there is a noticeable mid way lag. It’s a shame as the introduction starts off so well, noticeably carving its way into your retina cavities with its controversial CIA torture of Al Qaeda prisoners. But it fails continue this razor sharp pace. For me this film relies on its grandiose subject matter to carry its mistakes. Zero Dark Thirty fails to entertain.