Movie review: 'Zero Dark Thirty'

Film gives very detailed account of the search for bin Laden.

The Fresno BeeJanuary 10, 2013 

Most of the efforts to track down and kill Osama bin Laden remain classified information. The only details readily made to the public have been about his death at the hands of Navy SEALs in 2011, which ended one of the greatest manhunts in history.

"Zero Dark Thirty" (a military term that means 30 minutes past midnight), the new film from Oscar-wining director Kathryn Bigelow, offers a detailed -- very detailed -- accounting of the years the CIA spent following every tiny lead in their quest to find bin Laden. This lengthy accounting is so tedious at times that the finale seems as illusive as the man at the center of the manhunt.

Bigelow builds the story -- either based on classified or unclassified material depending on the story you believe -- around Maya (Jessica Chastain), a novice CIA agent at the beginning of the hunt who becomes a dogged fighter for results when it seems all clues to bin Laden's whereabouts go dry. As Bigelow did with "The Hurt Locker," she runs parallel stories -- the technical side contrasted with the human elements -- at least at the start.

It begins with Maya observing a waterboarding session on her first day in the Middle East. Her face shows both the understanding of what is to be accomplished with the torture and the repulsion she feels for the actions. Chastain's best in the early part of the film. As the search goes on for years, her emotion is lost to a more by-the-book attitude. It's as if her acting energy begins to fade with each passing moment.

She gets little support from the cast. Each performer looks like they have signed on to be re-enactors and have just read the CliffsNotes about their characters. The best supporting performance comes from Jennifer Ehle, who at least shows that even in the middle of such a serious operation, it's OK to be human.

It doesn't help that the script by Mark Boal (one of the Oscar-winning writers of "Hurt Locker") begins to play out liked censored government documents. Rather than reflecting on the frustrating search, the story turns into a plodding by-the-numbers recounting that marches from the CIA offices to a desert compound.

There's no denying that the last act is the most powerful, even though the ending is known. Bigelow almost kills the sequence by giving a detailed retelling of every move made by the SEALs. This isn't a movie about how to blow up a locked door. A quicker pace would have made the tension even stronger.

Judged solely on the final 37 minutes, "Zero Dark Thirty" is a flag-waving, apple pie-eating project that sends a shot of adrenaline to your patriotic nerves. It's getting there that seems so meticulously slow.

If nothing else, this movie is thorough in its telling of the story, an attribute that's not always the best when it comes to a movie where so much detail remains top secret.

Movie review

"Zero Dark Thirty," rated R for language, violence. Stars Jessica Chastain, Jennifer Ehle, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow. Running time: 157 minutes. Grade: B- Theaters and times for this movie | Other movie reviews

TV and movie critic Rick Bentley can be reached at (559) 441-6355, rbentley@fresnobee.com or @RickBentley1 on Twitter. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com.

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