by Jeff Beck, Guest Film Critic
Best Picture Nominee, "Zero Dark Thirty" Finally Opens Wide
May 2, 2011 brought the largest manhunt in history to an end. It took the efforts of multiple agents, soldiers, and others to bring it about, but their decade-long diligence paid off.  Osama Bin Laden had been found and killed, bringing a small bit of closure to everyone who had been affected by the September 11th attacks. Now, more than a year and a half later, the Academy Award winning team of director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal bring us the behind the scenes events of the hunt in their new film “Zero Dark Thirty.”

As far as a plot goes, that’s exactly what the film is about. It follows a CIA agent, Maya (Jessica Chastain), as she looks into multiple leads in an attempt to locate Bin Laden. These leads include anyone who’s had any known contact with him such as his personal couriers. Assisting her in this matter are other agents such as Ray (Jason Clarke), a man who isn’t afraid to use torture as a means of getting the information he wants, and her boss, Joseph Bradley (Kyle Chandler), who sometimes acts as more of an obstacle rather than someone who wants to help. However, it’s her persistence in following up on her leads that eventually brings a suspicious, fortified compound to her attention where it is believed that a high-ranking Al-Qaeda member is hiding, quite possibly Bin Laden himself.

Like “Lincoln,” “Zero Dark Thirty” is a film that has some strengths to it, but also a few major things holding it back. Starting off with a few of the good things, it features a strong performance from Jessica Chastain, whose character has to go through a major change to adjust to the kind of work she does. She must quickly find her strength and determination when it comes to following up on dangerous leads, a trait that Chastain shows quite well throughout the film. Indeed it is that fearless quality of her character that ends up getting things done.

The film is also well directed by Kathryn Bigelow, whom you may recall won the Best Director Oscar three years ago for the decent, but overrated, “The Hurt Locker.” Her camera is observant without being intrusive, giving you a first-hand look at these major events as they take place. The final sequence, which involves the invasion of Bin Laden’s compound, is done particularly well, but more on that later.

What is perhaps the biggest weakness of the film is Boal’s screenplay. While the film is a decent telling of the events, it’s not that deep of a look inside those events. It’s more of a superficial overview that jumps from lead to lead rather quickly over a span of two hours before concluding with the raid of the compound. Because of the overview nature of the film, it keeps the viewer at a distance, making it a little difficult to get engaged in the story.

This element also prevents much tension from building up in what should be an incredibly tense story. Maya has a lot of determination to catch Bin Laden, with each lead being a potential connection. We should be feeling the tension she’s feeling every step of the way, but with the film jumping around so much, it’s never given much of a chance. However, this does change for the final half hour.

This is the part of the film that involves the raid on Bin Laden’s compound, which ends up being its best part. There’s no showering it with excessive pomp, but rather a straightforward sequence of what occurred that night. Even though you know what’s coming, it’s fascinating to watch the events play out. The whole sequence is shot with great precision, giving the film a strong climax and conclusion, making the wait to get there worth it.

I was really reminded quite a lot of “Lincoln” while watching this film. Both films have a strong lead performance, run about two and a half hours, and have problems with their screenplays and storytelling methods that make them mostly forgettable. However, they both also manage to balance out to decent films due to their stronger elements. “Zero Dark Thirty” should have been a thoroughly engrossing telling of one of the most important historical events of the past few years, and while it is a decent telling of those events, I’m forced to reach the same conclusion that I did with “The Hurt Locker.” It’s a good film overall, but not the great film I’ve been hearing about. 3/4 stars.   //