While a wide variety of plots have populated works of fiction since storytelling first began, one of the more popular and long-standing ones -- undoubtedly due to its parallels to real life -- features the hero trying to hunt down the villain who's done harm to them or others. Be it a sheriff, a police detective, a government agent and sometimes even a vigilante, most viewers side with the "good guy" and his or her determined quest to nab the bad one.
In the world of film, that sometimes arrives in the form of a relatively straight-forward action tale with lots of chases, fights and other such styles of physical suspense. Others are more procedural, where the hero uses good ol' fashioned detective work to figure out the perp's identity, track them down and put an end to their crime spree.
The best, in my opinion, are those with deeper psychological implications and that which feed off and manipulate the strengths and weaknesses of both the hero and villain. One of the best examples of those was "The Silence of the Lambs" where Jodie Foster played a young FBI agent trying to find an active serial killer by interviewing an imprisoned madman (Anthony Hopkins in his signature role), and the mind games he plays with her. It was and still is a brilliant film that expertly mixed all of the aforementioned elements into a psychological detective story where the outcome was anything but a given.
In the new political drama/thriller "Zero Dark Thirty," Jessica Chastain plays a young CIA agent who must also deal with a third party (Reda Kateb) in her efforts to find and kill her ultimate villainous target, Osama bin Laden. Yet, while some mind games are put into play trying to make Kateb's terrorist suspect spill the beans, this film -- that's based on first-hand accounts of actual events -- is far more clinical and superficial than Jonathan Demme's masterpiece.
That isn't meant to imply that it's bad by any means. Rather, there's no exploration of the characters, with no back-story to explain their motivations or ascension to their current status and place in the world. We first meet Chastain's character when she arrives at one of the CIA's "black sites" run by a seasoned information extraction specialist (a terrific Jason Clarke who unfortunately isn't around throughout the film, a trait shared by most of the other characters). He is already hard at work trying to get the aforementioned terrorist suspect to give up names, intel and/or anything else that might help track down bin Laden.
As you may or may not have heard by now (as it's all over certain news outlets that apparently don't have better things to cover, and is being addressed by politicians who should have more pressing issues to attend to), that includes scenes of U.S. government officials torturing suspects. Like much of the film, that is neither glorified nor chastised. It's simply there for viewers to respond to as they see fit.
When the hoods come off and we see that Chastain's Maya is among them as a witness, we're not sure what to think, including about the strange expression on her face. Is she horrified? Is she going to join in and show the boys how it's really done? Or does she just view it as a necessary evil required to purge an even greater evil?
The assumption presented by director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal (who previously collaborated on the Oscar winning but little seen "The Hurt Locker") falls more in line with the latter as the character is presented as a determined soul who will do whatever it takes to succeed. Of course, we never know why that is, a point that both helps yet weakens the character and thus the film.
For some viewers, there will be happiness that the obligatory back-story about her upbringing, schooling, working in a male dominated government endeavor, etc. doesn't get in the way of the plot thrust, especially if it would feel tacked on. For others, though, the lack of any real connection to her character -- or any others for that matter -- prevents her and the overall pic from burrowing deep into the viewer's psyche.
It's a film meant to be viewed and analytically discussed, and while it has moments of horror and frustration, it's more of a clinical rather than emotionally immersive exercise. In fact, the only true emotion (other than constant frustration dealing with red tape and slow to respond superiors) comes when the job is completed and Maya finally breaks down.
It should be noted that Chastain's character -- based on an amalgamation of the real people involved -- is presumably designed to be symbolic of the collective work of the many people in the intelligence field who managed to figure out where bin Laden was hiding and then get him. And no, there is no surprise ending as the story concludes the way the real life event did. To their credit, the filmmakers nevertheless still make the Navy SEAL raid on the Pakistani compound fairly gripping despite most of us knowing the outcome.
Overall, I appreciated the film and the work of those involved in the making of it. But it simply didn't emotionally engage me like I thought it should and easily could have. Even the film's big "surprise" action moments are too telegraphed to be as effective as intended. And despite the film's nearly 160-minute runtime, there really isn't that much plot to fill all of that when it's boiled down to its base essence.
With a little editing and some greater humanity infused into it, this could have been brilliant. "Zero Dark Thirty" is solid and good overall, but not great. It rates as a 7 out of 10.