Zero Dark Thirty: It was striking to watch The Hurt Locker after months of hype to find that its alleged edge-of-seat qualities had more to do with psychology than storytelling. The Hurt Locker isn’t a thriller, or even a drama, really: it’s a character study that comes to some disturbing if obvious conclusions. Zero Dark Thirty, which reteams Locker director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal, arrives at an even more obvious ending: it’s about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, and climaxes, unsurprisingly, with the famous but secrecy-shrouded raid on his compound in Pakistan. Like The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty looks at our recent overseas entanglements through the laser-focused eyes of its central character, but Thirty‘s CIA analyst Maya (Jessica Chastain), driven and single-minded as she is, is also more tightly hinged than Jeremy Renner’s Hurt Locker daredevil. She needs to stay in control; terrorist hunting has an awful lot of hurry-up-and-wait.
The movie doesn’t get far enough into Maya’s head for Zero Dark Thirty to be another character study; this one is Bieglow’s wartime procedural, a detail-oriented epic of torture, dead ends, and dodgy leads. I’m forever and probably unfairly comparing most epic procedurals I see with David Fincher’s Zodiac, and this one, while better than most, doesn’t measure up to that lofty standard; it lacks that movie’s crazy quilt of details and eccentric characters, not to mention its sense of dread. It doesn’t get under your skin; you just watch the case get under Maya’s. In Zero Dark Thirty, details don’t quite fit together or add up, then they sort of do, and Maya becomes possessed by her hunch. She thinks she knows where bin Laden is, and for her that’s as good as actually knowing. To the extent that this movie mimics Hurt Locker‘s attention to character, it’s because Maya keeps focus through sheer, dogged determination.
Chastain is terrific: hard-nosed, simmering, often isolated even when supported by three acts’ worth of ace supporting turns: part one, in the early days, includes Jason Clarke as a bro-ish but worn-out interrogator and Jennifer Ehle as an initially skeptical colleague; part two has a lot of meaty material for Mark Strong’s Bush-league supervisor; and part three introduces a SEAL team including Joel Edgerton and Chris Pratt. Everyone does strong work, but there are long passages where Zero Dark Thirty sags with so many detailed and intricate knots; its apolitical faux-journalism dries the movie out.
It could be that Bigelow is after something brainier and more analytical than thriller mechanics; it could also be that she’s a touch overrated as an action director, because I wasn’t always certain there was much below the surface of this accomplished, often fascinating movie. There are some beautifully lighted images, particularly of Chastain in deep concentration, and the climactic raid manages to be filled with jittery tension even after worldwide dissemination, but much of the movie is shot with the same handheld-ish immediacy. In other words, it’s not unlike Paul Greengrass with more tripods and fewer control rooms. Zero Dark Thirty is very good at what it does, maybe even better than Hurt Locker, and I hope Chastain wins awards like crazy, but its point feels as hazy as some of its detective work.