By Soot-Case Murphy
It's Super Bowl Sunday, and before I wedge myself out into the Wingstravaganza, I figure I'd make that my reward for finally getting to something I've been putting off for a while: a review of Zero Dark Thirty, which I actually saw weeks ago and am just finally getting to writing about it now. Perfect timing, seeing how the Osama Bin Ladin assassination was the Super Bowl of military administered assassinations. Also, when his death was announced, they played Whitney Houston's Super Bowl version of the National Anthem on the hour, every hour. Full circle.
I'm a film critic, so nine times out of ten I have a guilty conscience about things, which is something a film critic is supposed to overcome. When you're a critic, amateur (me) or professional, you're faced with a job that produces many jeers. You're different than the artist(s) you're critiquing, whether positively or negatively, and few critics ever make it out into the wood work of actual "artists," except maybe Ebert, Kermode, and the entire A.V. Club.
The point is, I'm often insecure about when I may be "wrong." As a film critic, as much as people may disagree with you, you're always supposed to stick to your reaction. It's Criticism 101. So when I see a movie like Zero Dark Thirty, a movie which seemingly everyone who has seen it absolutely loves, and come out of it feeling more lukewarm than anything, it feels like needles are trying to escape my body.
Hence, why this review is so late.
But it's Super Bowl Sunday, dammit! It's time for me to be like the Ravens and that other team all rolled into one, or Beyonce and those other two girls, and show my worth. And what I gotta say is this, Kathryn Bigelow is an artist whose work intimidates me. In film studies, her work is consistently pored over and picked apart. And justifiably so - she's a master genre-masher, more subtle than Tarantino, but most of her films possess a machismo that's cool and collected.
Much of that machismo is incubated into strong females (Near Dark, Blue Steel) or strong feminized males (Point Break). It's the former in Zero Dark Thirty, and Jessica Chastain incarnates Bigelow - an attractive woman who spearheads a man's game better than the men themselves. Maya (Chastain) is a director by trade, essentially. Directors, through their art, seek a truth. Maya does, just as her still undercover agent did back when the operation was completed over a decade-long deliberation. Her portrayal is one that represents the fury and anxiety of millions everywhere who wanted Osama found, and the millions more who wanted him dead. Bigelow doesn't identify with either side. Bin Ladin's death (spoiler!) is met with an underwhelming sense of victory, a little less fanfare than a giant MISSION ACCOMPLISHED banner on the USS Abraham Lincoln.
For a movie about an event that changed the world, and was perhaps the most 'merican moment of the past several years, it's completely devoid of that "hell yeah" attitude. And for that reason, aside from the fact that Bigelow and Boal didn't bother to wait to tell the story, makes Zero Dark Thirty a very ballsy film and it deserves to seen.
For it's triumphs, Zero Dark Thirty only sounds better in theory. The idea of a female-led war film about a very rah-rah-America moment with not-so-rah-rah-America moments is way cool, but the execution is tedious. Part of that has to do with Maya's character. We know she's young and relatively inexperienced, and the fact that she's a woman doesn't help her in the field either, even though she's doing her job better than her male superiors. Nevertheless, Chastain doesn't bring much charisma to the role. She's given lines a hard-ass action cop would say, and in a realistic context they come out flat and chuckle-inducing, for the totally wrong reasons.
Now, this is the point where the self-consciousness kicks in. Chastain is not a bad actress. The structure is actually is as it was - a lot of deliberation, frustration, and the routine exploding bomb leading up to an exciting climax and an ambiguous ending. I can see where a lot of the praise this movie is getting. That's the biggest issue for me - it's not a bad movie, and yet there's nothing about it I can really love, or even like enough to bring me back for a second time.
That was a problem I had with the Hurt Locker, even though that had maybe the best final 15 minutes of any movie I've seen in a long time. But maybe because the preceding 120 minutes was such a chore to get through, and like in Zero Dark Thirty, the action scenes are effective, and there's some real tension here and there, but like everyone else in the process, I'm just as anxious to get through the whole damn ordeal as they are.
When The Social Network came out a couple years ago, hype came long with it. For that purpose, Zero Dark Thirty is very much alike - aside from Chastain's underwhelming, underdeveloped character, there's not much to really condemn. There's also not a lot to recommend either.
Hence my insecurity. Usually critics are schooled to outright love or hate something. I can't do that. Sometimes the product being reviewed just doesn't do illicit a response. Maybe that's the error I've been missing.