Movie Review: Zero Dark Thirty is good but not great

by Nikhil Taneja  Feb 17, 2013 14:41 IST

#NewsTracker   #Zero Dark Thirty  

At the upcoming 2013 Academy Awards, it’s been nominated for five Oscars, including Best Motion Picture of the Year. So far, it’s won the Best Picture Award at AFI Awards, Austin Film Critics Association, Boston Society of Film Critics Awards, Chicago Film Critics Association Awards, National Board of Review, New York Film Critics Circle Awards, and some 40 more.

Yes, it just *might* be a little fact that critics love the film and that they *may* want to marry the film and have little baby sequels of the film.

Zero Dark Thirty. Image courtesy: Facebook page.

Zero Dark Thirty. Image courtesy: Facebook page.

So the question isn’t whether Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn "The Hurt Locker” Bigelow’s film about the decade long hunt for Osama Bin Laden and his subsequent assassination, is any good.

The questions are exactly how good is it, precisely how excited should you be to watch it, does it really deserve all the awards on this planet over Argo and most importantly, whether or not the Osama in this film looks better than Pradyuman Singh from Tere Bin Laden.

Cutting to the chase (pun totally intended), Zero Dark Thirty is an engrossing, superbly directed, well-acted and finely made drama about the longest manhunt for the most dangerous man in recent history.

It’s an intense, grim and disturbing film that seethes and festers in the palpable tension that Bigelow creates on screen through the superlative performances. But – yes, there’s a but – there are a few glaring hiccups in the film that make it far from perfect.

For one, the film is unapologetically one-sided in its portrayal of what exactly happened. We see people being tortured, maimed or killed through the film, and the film focuses on the fact that it is wrong, but never on the story behind it.

There’s no remorse shown by anyone in the film – whether on the “right” side or the “wrong” – and there is no justification or reason given as to why one side is right, and the other wrong. Like the protagonist of the film, CIA agent Maya, who takes it upon herself to capture Bin Laden, Zero Dark Thirty is clinical in its approach as well.

Most of the film is, hence, devoid of any moral ambiguity or real emotion, apart from the tension that runs through the atmospheric first half, and while it’s always refreshing when a cliché is avoided, somehow, the film feels a bit hollow and because of the categorical absence of the other side. Of course, this could all be propaganda, but if that is indeed the case, it is a far cry from the balanced portrayal of war in Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker, and the film’s emotional maturity.

Then there is the case of the graphic torture scenes, of which much has been made in the American media. Without getting into the political implications of these scenes, cinematically, and as part of the film as a whole, the scenes are long, drawn out and after a point of time, unnecessary.

Whatever they add to the dark, harrowing feel of the film is conveyed in the first 10 minutes, after which, they seem like an exercise in futility. Even the last 30 minutes of the film, shot in night vision, that focus purely on the elimination of Bin Laden by the US Navy Seals, could have been done with some chopping on the edit table.

The real film lies somewhere in between the first and last 30 minutes, in Jessica Chastain’s gritty portrayal of Maya, whose resolve to capture Bin Laden against all odds, be it political, professional or emotional, give the film its highest dramatic points.

It’s hard to miss the fact that her arc, and the movie’s actual story, mirrors that of the brilliant American TV series, Homeland, and just like Claire Danes carries the series on her shoulders, it is Chastain’s measured and tenacious performance that makes Zero Dark Thirty the riveting watch that it is.

Watch the film for Chastain, Bigelow’s direction, and the remarkable story that it is, but carry along some patience in good measure, since Zero Dark Thirty is more a pensive drama than the thriller it is made out to be.