Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (February 15, 2017)
After a long break from filmmaking, Kathryn Bigelow returned with a bang via 2009’s The Hurt Locker. Although the movie didn’t do much at the box office, it snared multiple Oscars – including Best Picture - and re-established Bigelow in Hollywood.
Which led to a higher profile for her follow-up: 2012’s Zero Dark Thirty. It didn’t win as many awards, but it got excellent reviews and became a moderate box office hit. No, Zero’s $94 million didn’t dazzle, but the low-budget flick turned a profit, and it delivered much stronger returns that the poor $17 million of Hurt Locker.
Although I found myself rather underwhelmed by Hurt Locker, I hoped to feel more impressed by Zero. Set in the Middle East two years after the 9/11 attacks, we observe CIA interrogations intended to deal with potential terrorism and its perpetrators. Into this setting steps Maya (Jessica Chastain), a young agent new to these techniques.
Although put off by the brutality of the interrogation at first, Maya quickly adapts and becomes part of the team. Along the way, she develops a single-minded obsession with the pursuit of Usama bin Laden. We follow her as she attempts to achieve this goal.
Like many historical films, Zero comes with one major possible obstacle: we know how the story will end. Not only do we realize that a Navy SEAL team will kill bin Laden, but also we understand that all of the soldiers will survive, so we lose some potential tension.
With 1997’s Titanic, Bigelow’s ex-husband James Cameron got around this pitfall to a degree: he focused on fictional characters whose fates wouldn’t be known in advance. Zero can’t do that, at least not in the same way. While it does provide composite characters and puts them in non-factual situations, any attempts to fictionalize the climactic assault would’ve been disastrous.
This makes Zero more analogous to 1995’s Apollo 13. That flick could take liberties but not to a huge degree, and it needed to stay pretty accurate when it came to its finale.
In the case of Apollo 13, we got a movie that may’ve been predictable but it still seemed exciting and tense. I’m not wild about Ron Howard as a director, but for that film, he brought out his “A-game” as he infused the already-known story with drama and pizzazz.
I’m also not much of a fan of Bigelow as a director, and Zero doesn’t change my mind. Unlike Cameron or Howard, she brings little flair and excitement to her film. Instead, she tends to rob potentially dynamic material of its vitality.
When I saw Zero theatrically, I did so a couple of days after I watched Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained and couldn’t help but compare the two directors. I sense a radical imbalance in skill between the two, for I feel Tarantino is a master filmmaker while Bigelow is completely, entirely average.
Django vs. Zero reinforces this notion. On the surface, Django - like Inglourious Basterds and pretty much every other Tarantino film – should be schlock. Django offers a story straight from cheap 70s “B”-movie fare and comes with little at its heart that should ensure greatness.
But miraculously, Tarantino takes this sow’s ear and turns it into a silk purse. He manages to create a dynamic, evocative effort that overcomes its humble beginnings and shows how much a great director can bring to the table.
While Tarantino takes flawed material and makes it shine, Bigelow does the opposite. Despite the potential negatives that come with its known outcome, Zero could – and should – have offered a gripping narrative.
It doesn’t. Instead, Zero feels almost shockingly devoid of drama. Actually, it does okay for itself during the first act, but before long, it runs out of steam. Bigelow resorts to cheap tactics like the gratuitous killings of agents and other hamfisted choices to involve the audience, but these backfire.
And when one of Maya’s colleagues dies, Bigelow’s choices backfire to a massive degree. The scene in which this occurs is so stupid that singlehandedly threatens to ruin the rest of the movie.
For one, Bigelow completely telegraphs that a death will happen, as films don’t focus on secondary characters like this unless something major will take place, so we can see demise in advance. Also, the person in question behaves so idiotically that we don’t feel particularly bad when death occurs. The whole thing delivers such a contrived “movie moment” that we get none of the intended passion or emotion.
Even without that radical mistake, Zero lacks drama. We follow Maya on her quest toward the inevitable and rarely feel especially invested in her pursuit. Again, some of this may stem from the already-known outcome, but I think Bigelow’s flaws as a director are the bigger issue, as she just can’t add any spice to the proceedings.
The climactic assault becomes the biggest victim of Bigelow’s mediocrity. At no point does the extended military raid do much to involve the viewer, so we follow the soldiers as they achieve their goals and don’t really care all that much.
How is this possible? Predictable finale or not, shouldn’t an attack like this have plenty of tension and drama?
Yup, but it doesn’t, and again, I blame Bigelow. While Tarantino takes mediocre material and makes it great, Bigelow takes awesome material and makes it bland.
I see no “signature style” from her – or much style of any sort, honestly, as anonymity seems to be her route. She turned Hurt Locker into little more than a “C”-level action flick, and she develops Zero into a slow, dull attempt at a thriller.
I take no pleasure from this opinion. I wanted to like Hurt Locker, I wanted to like Zero, and I thought I would/should enjoy both of them.
But I didn’t. Zero Dark Thirty gives us a perfectly average thriller that could’ve been made by any number of other directors. It gets a boost from its interesting subject matter but ends up as a thoroughly generic film.