Movie review: Zero Dark Thirty

By Columbus Alive
From the January 10, 2013 edition

One of the most critically acclaimed movies of the year finally hits theaters this week. And, though I write this before the nominees are announced, I’m wagering that “Zero Dark Thirty” remains the odds-on Oscar frontrunner.

And I remain a little puzzled by the accolades it’s getting.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s a fine film, but reading the early press I expected it to be a revelation. And I found myself expecting more from it.

Director Kathryn Bigelow — the first female Best Director winner in Oscar history — follows the Iraq war drama “The Hurt Locker” with one of the most ambitious stories committed to film this year: the U.S. intelligence hunt that culminated with Osama bin Laden’s death.

We follow this hunt through the eyes of Maya (Jessica Chastain), a young C.I.A. agent whose brief career has fixated on tracking top al-Qaeda targets, obviously the top being bin Laden.

Maya’s dogged efforts over the years are fueled by the conviction that her head and gut are right where her superiors are not. And, given the stakes, she has a lot of faith in that conviction.

Please do not misunderstand me on this point: I think “Zero Dark Thirty” is a really good film. I just don’t think it’s great, particularly when you look at the superlatives that have been thrown its way.

Bigelow turns the screws with the same kind of tension that made “Hurt Locker” work. Her almost clinical approach to ticking-bomb situations (in some cases, literally) can make these situations truly heart-pounding. For audiences used to decades of Hitchcock imitators in the field of suspense, her approach feels unique.

Chastain’s Maya — based on a real agent — draws comparisons to Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling from “Silence of the Lambs.”

When the film reaches its inevitable climax — a 20-minute sequence on the raid that took out bin Laden — Bigelow is back in her action comfort zone. Though the stakes are higher, there are moments reminiscent of some scenes in “Point Break.”

But in the two hours plus it took to get there, we find Bigelow’s weak spot: cultivating characters. Maya stands out through the sheer force of Chastain’s performance.

Furthermore, in an attempt to maintain accuracy, we don’t gain any perspective on bin Laden’s life in hiding or the network around him. The focus is solely on the hunt and the hunters.

I’m in the critical minority — and won’t deny some flashes of brilliance — but “Zero Dark Thirty” came up short of the target for me.