Zero Dark Thirty/(Photo: Jonathan Olley, Columbia Pictures)/USA TODAY
The movie audiences are anticipating in Zero Dark Thirty takes place in the final half hour.
It takes two long hours before Osama bin Laden's compound in Pakistan is invaded and America's most wanted terrorist is captured and killed. The time leading up to this tense sequence carried out by Navy SEALs is spent in clinical procedural wrangling in a no-frills style.
While this decade-long look at the inner workings of the CIA (** 1/2 out of four; rated R; opening Wednesday in New York and Los Angeles) is intriguing, the movie would have benefited by more character development and additional editing.
Director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal (the duo behind the brilliant The Hurt Locker) re-teamed for this film, which, while ambitious, lacks the visceral punch of that 2009 best picture winner.
Each segment is introduced by a chapter title in the lead-up to the assault on bin Laden's suburban Pakistani compound. It follows a dedicated team of CIA analysts, particularly Maya (Jessica Chastain), who works a hunch for years. Inspired by an actual CIA analyst that Boal found while researching the film, Maya is resolute about bin Laden's whereabouts, while her colleagues waver in their certainty. She impatiently keeps track of the raid's bureaucratic delays, in glaring red marker (over 100 days).
But Chastain's performance doesn't always match the laser focus of her character. There is an irksome blankness to her portrayal. In contrast, her fellow operative Dan (Jason Clarke) comes across much more vividly.
If Maya is based on a real person, why does she come off as a robo-CIA agent? Perhaps that's by design, a statement on the culture of the organization, since others in the CIA sometimes refer to her as "the girl." But as an audience, we need to know more about this lead character in order to root for and feel for her.
Early on, there are scenes of graphic torture in which Dan punches and eventually waterboards a suspect (Reda Kateb). The brutal behavior is meant to be key to bin Laden's capture. However, Senate Intelligence Committee chair Sen. Dianne Feinstein has denied that waterboarding helped in this case. This is a movie that claims to be faithfully based on facts, but the filmmakers can't have it both ways.
Natural lighting and a handheld camera provide stunning shots, and dramatic sound design (particularly when helicopters descend on the bin Laden compound) adds to the tension. When the raid finally happens, it's riveting, as seen through night vision goggles.
The story is long and is more admirable than enjoyable as it jumps around the Middle East. Some of the side missions and digressions seem unnecessary, particularly the re-creation of terrorist events like the London bombings.
There's an emotional detachment to the film that undercuts its potency. Zero Dark Thirty is more technically proficient than emotionally involving.