Review: Zero Dark Thirty

The film begins with a small heading on a black screen, “September 11, 2001.” Slowly, we hear hauntingly familiar audio transmissions wash over the dark theater. Desperate employees call from inside the towers,  bewildered police dispatchers giving false reassurance, air traffic controllers and news reporters all struggle to make sense of an unfolding situation.

This is a gripping moment, and the audience feels prepared to enter a harrowing and controversial account of recent history. While ZD30 has some success in this area, particularly with a strong central performance by Jessica Chastain as the composite character Maya, much of the material feels like another murky 21st century American war thriller.

Once again, our nation is grittily portrayed as more embittered, more uncertain than we were before 9/11, but with a typical approach to intelligence strategies that resembles an angry tennis match (inter-departmental feuds, reactive instead of proactive thinking) more than a patient chess game. Maya’s character brings a more quiet, intelligent determination to the story, offering a unique twist to the pattern, and becomes the primary interest of the film.

The bulk of the plot follows Maya through a string of events leading up to 2011, showing some of the the breakthroughs, setbacks and tragedies that occurred throughout the decade-long Bin-Laden investigation. Many of the revealed details stick with the viewer (assassination attempts on CIA personnel, the agency’s purchase of a Lamborghini for a Saudi prince to gain information, the infamous scenes of U.S torture methods), but after awhile the enigmatic (sometimes flat) characters and their tersely delivered, unrevealing dialogue begins to wear on the viewer.

When the conclusion arrives, the viewer is immediately drawn back into the story; in the heavily detailed recreation of Operation Neptune Spear (the actual raid on Bin Laden’s Pakistani compound), there is a sense of being in immediate proximity to a defining historical moment, which the earlier portion of the film didn’t quite achieve. There is little dialogue except for the professional jargon of the Navy SEAL’s, and the sensorial features (the sound of stealth helicopters, locks being blown open) contribute greatly to the realistic impact of the experience.

One almost feels as if these final scenes could stand on their own as a short film. The one factor that ties this intense dramatization to the preceding plot is the presence of Maya at the end, confirming the kill, and coming to terms with the completion of a decade of her life’s work. It is her performance in the final shots of the film that allow ZD30 to stand as a whole.

Rating: 3 ½ out of 5 stars

ANDREW RUSSELL can be reached at arts@theaggie.org.

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