Tense and unemotional 'Zero Dark Thirty' isn’t easy viewing

ltoppman@charlotteobserver.comJanuary 10, 2013 

  • Zero Dark Thirty A- Cast: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Jennifer Ehle, Kyle Chandler, Mark Strong Director: Kathryn Bigelow Website: Length: 2 hours, 17 minutes Rating: R (violence, profanity)

“Zero Dark Thirty,” like the mission that inspired it, commands respect, admiration, even awe in places for the logistical nightmares that had to be overcome to get it done. But it’s a hard movie to love.

For two hours and 37 minutes, U.S. espionage agents and soldiers track and kill Osama Bin Laden. The film is as single-minded and unemotional as Maya, the protagonist whose eyes provide our window on this secret world.

She pursues this goal for eight years, through interrogation and torture of Arab detainees, multiple al-Qaida bomb attacks, mountains of photographs or transcriptions of phone conversations. When a body bag is zipped over the face of America’s most wanted man, she and we are exhausted and relieved.

Whether that will satisfy you depends on your ability to enjoy a movie with virtually no emotional component.

Director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal stepped into similar territory in “The Hurt Locker,” but the main bomb defuser in that film had needs and anxieties and a life (however frustrating) outside his mission. Maya does not.

We know nothing about her, except that the C.I.A. recruited her out of high school. She has no lovers or friends, except for a casual drinking buddy in her unit. She has no apparent family, no outside interests. She lives to stalk the man who attacked our country; everything that advances this project makes her happy, and everything that impedes it (including delays she perceives as governmental timidity) makes her angry.

Jessica Chastain plays Maya with the laser-like focus required. On a few occasions, Bigelow and Boal seem to suggest she’s slightly dehumanized by the waterboarding and sleep deprivation she oversees, but the movie doesn’t develop that idea.

Nor does it raise philosophic questions. Other films may ask how much collateral damage to civilians is acceptable when seeking a killer, or whether torture is permissible when we know both guilty and innocent people must undergo it. “Zero Dark Thirty” does not. (The title comes from the hour, 12:30 a.m., when soldiers flew off to assault Bin Laden’s compound.)

Instead, it’s the military equivalent of a police procedural. On that level, I don’t see how it could be bettered: Tension and intensity never flag.

The matter-of-fact tone suits every setting in the film, from CIA boardrooms to tiny holding cells. “This is how we did it,” each scene proclaims, and that’s easy to believe.

The attack on the compound, abbreviated by the imminent arrival of the Pakistani military (which wasn’t told in advance), has a credible mix of efficiency and anxiety: A soldier shoots an armed man who isn’t Bin Laden, then reflexively kills his aggrieved wife. When a comrade asks if she’s dead, the shooter casually answers, “No, but she’ll bleed out.” Bigelow and Boal don’t judge that moment; they report it.

Supporting characters don’t matter much; they merely serve plot-related functions. Still, it’s always enjoyable to see Mark Strong, James Gandolfini, Kyle Chandler and Harold Perrineau.

Jennifer Ehle stands out as Maya’s co-worker, the one she meets for beer. On Broadway, this Winston-Salem native has won two Tony Awards; in movies, she’s usually brought in for small injections of heart or humor. Her friendly chemistry with Chastain shows another route “Zero” might’ve taken, but it rushes back to tapped phones and hacked computers. In the film’s hunt for Bin Laden, there’s no time to be wasted on humanity.

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