“Zero Dark Thirty” is a taut, level-headed thriller about the decade-long manhunt for Osama bin Laden. But you already knew that, didn’t you? The movie is pretty much leading the way to Best Picture glory at this year’s Academy Awards, and rightfully so. “Zero” is a good movie that gets boosted to greatness in its final half-hour, which finally depicts the heroic compound invasion that led to the death of one of the world’s deadliest known terrorists.
The movie may be long, but it certainly doesn’t feel like it. Director Kathryn Bigelow (“The Hurt Locker”) rockets through eight years of behind-the-scenes intel-gathering in the first hour alone. It’s also the part of the movie that depicts the most torture. “Zero Dark Thirty” does not shy away from the fact that waterboarding was a common method of acquiring information from detainees who would not talk. It also doesn’t shy away from the fact that the people spearheading the torture didn’t particularly like what they’re doing.
Many pundits have criticized “Zero Dark Thirty” for its alleged pro-torture stance, but the allegations are all rubbish in my eyes. Much of the torture shown here is being done in pre-Obama 2003, a time when the whole world was still in shock over the events of 9/11. It makes sense for the movie to show the tactics that were being used at the time, and the movie never really makes the case that the use of torture, while effective, was anything but a last resort when dealing with tight-lipped captives who were harboring information that could ultimately lead to the safety of millions of world citizens.
But “Zero Dark Thirty” isn’t merely about torture. It’s mostly a procedural about how one woman’s determined efforts brought down one of history’s deadliest criminals. As the pseudonymous Mya, Jessica Chastain brings a lot of humanity to her role as the woman who would ultimately end al-Qaeda’s reign of terror, but let’s not get bent out of shape over her Oscar-nominated performance. In the movie’s early scenes, when Mya is a neophyte intelligence agent first learning the ropes, I could swear she was being played by a neophyte actress. Eventually Chastain does find her stride — the scene in which she audibly chastises Kyle Chandler is a crowd-pleaser for sure — but there’s much better acting going on in the movie’s supporting cast.
Jason Clarke (“Lawless”) stands out as the movie’s chief torture expert. Jennifer Ehle is swell as one of Chastain’s counterparts (although she has this unfortunate tendency of adding a syllable to “al-Qaeda” that was actually quite distracting). Joel Edgerton makes the most of his minimal screen time as one of the sharpshooters who invades bin Laden’s compound. And Reda Kateb is oddly sympathetic as the informant being tortured.
Some of the movie’s bit players are a bit too recognizable — James Gandolfini, Stephen Dillane, Chris Pratt and Mark Duplass pop up just long enough for us to go, “Oh, look who it is!” instead of us being swept up in their performances. Call me old fashioned, but “Zero Dark Thirty” is so much better when it doesn’t resort to cheap cameo tricks.
Fortunately, the movie’s “special guest star” mechanics do nothing to derail the relentless nature at work in the rest of “Zero Dark Thirty.” There’s a terrifically suspenseful scene involving the arrival of an informant that ranks among the movie’s finest moments. Mark Strong has a blow-up that underscores the frustration everyone in the CIA must have felt as the 10-year search for bin Laden droned on and on. And then there’s the phenomenally absorbing raid itself, easily one of the most exciting action sequences I have ever seen.
“Zero Dark Thirty” is a movie that starts out thrilling and just keeps getting better and better. At 2½ hours, that’s quite a feat. Kathryn Bigelow shouldn’t be offended that she didn’t score the Best Director nomination. She should be proud she has made one of the very best films of the year.
★★★½ out of ★★★★
Rated R for brutal violence (including scenes of torture), strong language and male nudity. 157 minutes.
Director: Kathryn Bigelow. Starring: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke.
Check out Austin Kennedy’s review of ZERO DARK THIRTY by clicking here.