There are forces working for and against Kathryn Bigelow’s newest film, Zero Dark Thirty. For: The built-in emotional gravity that comes with a story surrounding the events of September 11th; Bigelow’s past success in a familiar Middle Eastern locale (a literal sandbox for her, to use a cheeky metaphor); her execution of the ideal action-thriller pacing, and an enormous cast of so-damned-hot-right-now stars.
But some of the same things that work for this movie also present unreasonable expectations and comparisons. For instance, it seems impossible to consider ZDT apart from Bigelow’s previous film, the Hurt Locker. Superficially, they’re the same kind of movie: post-9/11 wartime examinations of America’s often overzealous battle against terrorism, looking closely at the toll that such a fight takes on the soldiers. The distinction lies in fiction versus nonfiction, and this is where fiction holds an edge.
Audiences know how ZDT ends and that Jessica Chastain’s self-assured character is righteous and true. They know that the decade-long hunt will pay off and that the lives lost along the way will not have been for nothing. The What the hell happens next? grip on the audience is, in a way, lost by knowing where the narrative ends. The Hurt Locker wasn’t given the task of covering the scope of a ten-year investigation; it was allowed to swiftly move from site to site, IED to IED, with little busy work in between. Here, the film begins with an interrogation of a lower level terrorist – a brutal torture scene that demonstrates the lengths the US was willing to go in the early 2000s before oversight and bureaucracy took over. As months turned to years, individual interrogations turned to large-scale intelligence gathering delivered second-hand, by GPS locations and heat signatures. Waterboarding turns to paperwork – still compelling but too documentarian.
But ZDT rebounds with the sequence that the entire film was leading up to: the raid on the compound. The audience knew that Bin Laden was there, but the SEAL Team did not. Bigelow lets the tension build and build in a mission that plays out in real time. There, fiction simply cannot compete with reality.
Zero Dark Thirty opens January 11th.