Happily, Kathryn Bigelow’s latest Zero Dark Thirty is not one of those films. Did I love this movie? Not really. It actually left me kind of cold, but I suspect that was the point.
The film doesn’t make any effort to ingratiate itself to the viewer. In fact, it feels like homework…like reading an intriguing chapter in a kinda dull poli sci textbook.
The film details the CIA’s ultimately successful decade-long manhunt for Osama Bin Laden. The most pleasant surprise? The film, while indeed patriotic, does not traffic in fist-bumping, simple-minded, Lee-Greenwood’s-so-proud-to-be-an-American, self-aggrandizing flag-waving. In fact, this film is the total opposite.
Its brand of patriotism is much more nuanced. Like this year’s similarly themed Argo, Americans are a scruffy bunch, using ingenuity, persistence, and downright luck, mixed with a heaping dose of obsession, insecurity, and uncertainty, to save the day. In fact, always excellent Kyle Chandler plays almost identical roles in each film. The central characters are kind of a hard bunch to root for, in fact. No white hats here.
Is Jessica Chastain, as the CIA analyst who has an almost preternatural sixth sense about tracking Public Enemy #1, Oscar-winning good? Yup, she pretty much is. It’s not a showy role – no scenery chewing, other than one sort of testy hallway chat with her boss (the aforementioned Chandler). Rather, Chastain paints a believable portrait of a careerist operative whose calloused growth parallels the nation’s growing frustrations and distaste with the CIA’s free-ranging intelligence-gathering techniques.
The supporting cast is roundly excellent from James Gandolfini to Chris Pratt, Mark Strong to Jennifer Ehle. Joel Edgerton is a particular standout as Chastain’s haunted compatriot.
The film paints a vivid portrait of how our world has changed, probably mostly for the worse. Violence is the only language anyone can speak, and the “heroes” and “villains” become a blur, employing interchangeable tactics to achieve spurious victories. The film’s most telling metaphor? The cage. Every character lives in one – some literally, some figuratively – with little solace, little meaningful connection.