Second Opinion: Zero Dark Thirty

'It just seems surprisingly pat for the very harrowing world of international politics.'

Fred Topelby Fred Topel

Zero Dark Thirty was a good, solid, well done movie. I wasn’t blown away by it but it was what I expected from a movie by an Academy Award-winning director making a movieabout an important historical subject. Since it is being heralded by many, including our own William Bibbiani, as "the year’s best," I thought it was worth exploring the perspective that Zero Dark Thirty is simply "good."

The film explores events from September 11, 2001 through the SEAL Team Six raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound. We follow a CIA operative named Maya (Jessica Chastain) as she investigates in Pakistan and ultimately uncovers the whereabouts of the world’s most wanted man. That was informative. In all the SEAL Team Six publicity, I never heard that it was a woman who found bin Laden. Not that her gender should matter but it’s the kind of detail you’d think would get some press.

Mark Boal’s script does a good job dividing events into chapters and detailing the chronology so you can see what led to what. It’s a monumental task to turn complicated operations into a digestible story. Perhaps it was too “docudrama” style because I always felt like I was watching an exercise in adaptation. It was a successful adaptation of events but there you go. It’s a walkthrough of the last ten years of CIA intelligence.

Along the way, the story is very predictable. I don’t mean that we know they get bin Laden in the end. I’m not so smug that I would complain about that. It’s that other suspense sequences along the way are so telegraphed that you just know they’re trying to add suspense in the middle before the inevitable catharsis. There’s a sequence with a checkpoint that goes on long enough that you know they’re setting something up. It’s just a tad too long to be simple procedure. They make that one exception and there’s someone waiting… I’m sorry, I know this scene actually happened to real people in real life, but I know how to read cinematic language so I saw it coming.

I also have an inherent aversion to handheld camerawork. There are a lot of people who feel that a handheld camera simulates realism, and those people are in luck. There are a lot of movies with handheld camerawork these days for you to enjoy. To me, when I see a camera bobbing around, I know that means a director and cinematographer didn’t want to set up a static, dolly or steadicam shot. Whether Bigelow and D.P. Greig Fraser intended handheld to equate with realism or just liked the mobility, I see something that is very distinctly not real to me. The picture’s jumping all over the place. It takes me out of the movie, and I am completely aware that this is simply my personal preference to see smooth, steady shots.

The characters seem to fit in convenient types, not that there’s anything wrong with archetypes, and they probably go a long way towards making this sprawling story digestible. Dan (Jason Clarke) is the experienced interrogator who’s had enough. Bradley (Kyle Chandler) is the suit who wants results but won’t take the big risks. I really liked Jessica (Jennifer Ehle), the expert who’s kind of smarter than her bosses. Maya is an awesome character because she’s right. In another story, she’d be dangerous. We feel safe rooting for her because we know she gets bin Laden in the end, but if she were pressing this hard for some fictional suspect, we might say, “You’ve crossed the line, Callahan!” because now we’re suddenly the chief in a Dirty Harry movie. I’m not saying throwing Maya some moral ambiguity would have been the answer, because that could have been equally clichéd, or worse, just paying some lip service to ambiguity in service of the ultimate agenda that we got the guy. It just seems surprisingly pat for the very harrowing world of international politics.

I was also a little surprised that people are liking all the night vision shots in the raid sequence. I know that’s accurate if the SEALs are raiding a compound at night, but night vision is usually an unflattering cliché in movies. I recalled the sequence in the Rollerball remake. Zero Dark Thirty’s finale isn’t entirely in night vision and of course it makes sense here. The military actually does use night vision goggles and sci-fi athletes probably do not. Cinematically, the conclusion seems to be that if it’s military tactics, night vision is cool, and if it’s sci-fi then it’s not.

Mind you, these are all concerns that did not ruin the movie at all. I wasn’t bored for 157 minutes and I felt like it was a faithful representation of history, insofar as I have an idea of what military operations and CIA sources should look like. I’m probably just nitpicking because Zero Dark Thirty is an “important movie.” I hate important movies, but if they’re going to make important movies then at least they’re well done in the hands of well-informed pros who did their proper research. 

Read CraveOnline's original review of Zero Dark Thirty

Fred Topel is a staff writer at CraveOnline. Follow him on Twitter at @FredTopel.