From the director of THE HURT LOCKER. Who is that you ask? Well, that’s Kathryn Bigelow. I have been a big fan of hers. I love NEAR DARK and really liked BLUE STEEL. Of course the movie that introduced me to her was POINT BREAK, which is, no matter how cheesy it gets, really well shot and directed. Her best movie to date for my money is still STRANGE DAYS, a highly original Sci-Fi film that is fucking awesome!!! I never did get around to seeing K-19: THE WIDOWMAKER or THE WEIGHT OF WATER. Her comeback film was THE HURT LOCKER, and while I thought it was good, I didn’t like it as much as her earlier work. I am glad she won an Oscar for directing, and was really looking forward to her next flick, which is ZERO DARK THIRTY.
This is what everyone is calling: “that Osama Bin Laden movie”. Yes, this is about the hunt for Bin Laden, and the eventual mission that led to his execution. But at the center of this movie is a C.I.A. agent named Maya (played by Jessica Chastain). The movie starts off as she is sent on her first assignment shortly after 9/11, which is to observe another agent named Dan (Jason Clarke) torture some suspects that may lead them to the infamous terrorist. The film spans nearly 10 years as Maya and various other agents torture, interrogate, have meetings, and analyze intel. They do finally get an idea where Bin Laden is hiding out and thus plan an invasion, though Maya’s superiors are skeptical. The final 30 minutes pretty much focuses on the raid that led to the demise of Bin Laden. But this movie tries to be more than just that Bin Laden film. It’s also about Maya’s uphill struggle to find the truth.
This movie is getting TONS of hype. Everyone is loving it. By everyone, I mean critics. It’s made several top 10 lists. I try not to follow hype, but with this movie it was kind of unavoidable. I kind of wish it wasn’t hyped up. Because my immediate reaction following my press screening was: “This is the movie everyone is talking about? …..Huh…….”
Don’t get me wrong. It’s NOT a bad movie. But it’s not particularly good either. That’s not to say there’s nothing good here, cause the film definitely has its moments. I like that the movie has a no-nonsense approach and that it’s going more for realism than the usual Hollywood glitz (like adding a romance or more explosions to the mix). But it’s also not without its problems. I have a tough time with political things, and when situations in movies are too technical, I kind of get lost. I’m night the brightest bulb in the tree, so I got occasionally lost during the few scenes as characters spouted out confidential Intel to one another. I also had a tough time connecting to the characters. During the final raid, there is literally NO one the audience can root for, since we don’t know any of the individuals involved. My colleage Jesse (who was at the screening with me) suggested that maybe that’s what they were going for. Well then, mission accomplished for alienating me. When after 115 minutes, we’re suddenly introduced to new characters who are the central focus for the remainder of the film, and we don’t know anything about them…….. yeah, you could say there’s some disconnect there. And why even cast Joel Edgerton when you’re only going to show his face for 90 seconds?
Now, it may sound like I hated it. I didn’t. Not at all. Let me talk about some of the things I liked about it. The first portion which deals mostly with Maya observing Dan torture terrorists is pretty good stuff. Jason Clarke easily gives the best performance of the film and it’s a pity he wasn’t nominated. He’s got that sloppy nice guy look going for him, but like he tells a suspect, “I’m a monster. I’m not your friend”. But you can also see how this job wears him down. Great character. Too bad HE wasn’t the central one. I also liked Jennifer Ehle as one of Maya’s co-workers. She delivers a convincing performance. There’s a taut sequence involving her character as she meets with a Saudi who may possibly give her information. Very suspenseful. The ending raid, while emotionally disconnecting, is technically well done. From a filmmaking standpoint, this is the best sequence of the film. I liked that it didn’t really have a score and was refreshingly quiet. Not relying on loud noises and sounds to get excitement from the crowd. That approach definitely lended to the realism of the situation.
But not being emotionally involved with the movie wasn’t my biggest problem. My biggest problem was Jessica Chastain. I really hate to go off on her because I have been a pretty big fan of her previous work. In 2011 she exploded onto the scene with several films including TREE OF LIFE, THE HELP, TAKE SHELTER, CORIOLANUS, and THE DEBT, which I thought was her best performance that year. So, what’s the problem you ask? Well, she overacts. A lot. Well, for the first 30 minutes she really doesn’t do anything except look like that she needs to eat as she watches Jason Clarke water log prisoners. Seriously, she looks sickly thin here. Her face is so boney that it looks like a skeleton. I couldn’t help but think how much better she would look if she just gained 20 pounds. Anyway, besides her unhealthy look (which makes her look well into her 40’s while she’s actually 35) every single acting choice she makes is phony. It’s all so dramatic that it feels like a performance. I didn’t buy her character for a second. She’s supposed to be this tough chick, but she came across weak to me. I didn’t buy her aggressiveness at all. I’m trying to figure out just what went wrong with her acting. My guess is that after giving several great performances, maybe she has become too confident, therefore overacting. She doesn’t feel fresh anymore. It’s a very Hollywood performance. Every single facial tick and vocal inflection seems forced. Remember Emma Watson as Harmonie in the first few Harry Potter movies? Yeah…. her performance is about like that. She’s over expressive. It seems like she was trying way too hard here. Chastain really needed to tone it down.
The direction is fine. But this isn’t the same Bigelow from the 90’s. Her style seems more suited to HBO productions now. Everything is solid and serviceable, but there’s nothing outstanding here. During a certain bombing sequence in a restaurant, I couldn’t help but think how 1995 Katheryn Bigelow would direct that scene, which probably would have been done with a breathtaking unbroken steadicam shot, but instead it was kind of choppy with lots of edits. Now, from anyone else I may have accepted it, but it’s from someone I know is capable of producing something better.
The script is fine I guess. It’s a little too technical and clinical for my taste. I prefer my films to have at least some heart and life to them. While I thought the first hour and the last 30 minutes were pretty riveting, there was too many scenes of agents sitting behind desks trying to figure out how to capture Bin Laden during the middle section. I also thought Alexandre Desplat’s score was pretty disappointing, as it sounded quite generic. Something that you would here on an episode of CSI.
I wish I liked this more. I really wanted too. It seems everyone around me is praising the hell out of this movie. Now, I’m not one of those critics that enjoys fucking up a fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes for the sake of getting hits on my site. I WANTED to like this movie. But the truth is, I was let down. If it wasn’t as hyped up as much, I probably wouldn’t have been as disappointed, but I still wouldn’t have recommended it. But because everyone is going nuts for this movie, I have to knock it down a few pegs. While it has some tense moments and great performances from Clarke and Ehle, the film just didn’t involve me emotionally.
I was pretty upset that Bigelow got snubbed by the Academy…. until I actually SAW the film. It felt like a really good TV movie, but Jessica Chastain’s phony and forced performance drags it down. ★★ (out of ★★★★)
- Rated R for strong violence including brutal disturbing images, and for language.
- Running time: 2hrs 36min.
Check out Jesse Hoheisel’s review of ZERO DARK THIRTY by clicking here.