“Zero Dark Thirty” tells the story of one of the greatest manhunts in history: the search for Osama bin Laden. The film follows a CIA agent named Maya as she pieces together clues and overcomes adversities to locate the infamous terrorist.
The trailers and promotional material for the film heavily implied that much of the focus of the movie would be on SEAL Team 6, covering their training to assault bin Laden’s fortress. However, the people of SEAL Team 6 are barely in the movie, which instead settles on a slow and poorly paced study of Maya’s attempts to find the most wanted man in the world.
Maya is a difficult character. She is abrasive towards her colleagues and especially toward her superiors. Characters like this are difficult to portray without the audience hating them as well, but Jessica Chastain manages to pull it off amazingly. The audience can understand the stress under which the investigation has put her. She is certainly not the most likeable protagonist to grace the silver screen this year, but she is one of the more interesting. Maya’s determination and Chastain’s performance provide the only driving forces behind the film. Since Maya is the focus of the film, it becomes less about bin Laden, who is onscreen for less than a minute, to being a character study about the determination of one woman to get her job done. This is the greatest strength and weakness of the film.
The rest of the cast is also quite good, but they get so little screen time that they do not leave much of an impact. They only show up when Maya needs something or when she needs someone to yell at. The focus on Maya seems to disregard all of the efforts and training of other people involved in the manhunt. Jason Clarke follows Chastain in the ranks of characters who receive the most screen time. Clarke’s character, Maya’s associate Dan, is one of the few people in the film with a sense of humor; unfortunately, this humor usually comes through when he is in the process of torturing a captive. Kyle Chandler also turns in a good performance as Maya’s first superior during the early stages of the investigation.
Neither the writing nor the direction of the film are worthy of the considerable praise they have been given. The pacing in the film is nonexistent, which is bad for a film that is over two and a half hours long. The tone is odd at times, and one particular scene concerning a terrorist bombing at a U.S. base is so awkward that it borders on farcical. However, the scenic shots are well done and the few action scenes are well shot. The climax at bin Laden’s compound with SEAL Team 6 is the best part of the movie—and also the section from which the majority of the trailer footage has come.
The film is not bad, but it is not worthy of the praise it has garnered. The cast members—what little we see of them, anyway—are all quite good. Chastain is shouldered with the burden of carrying this film and does not disappoint. It is her movie, not SEAL Team 6’s, not the CIA’s and not Osama bin Laden’s. If she had not been as capable an actress as she is, the film would have been much worse.