It’s always a challenge to tell a story where the audience knows the ending. The trick comes in offering a new perspective on familiar events or at least generating suspense in a way that makes us nervous that Apollo 13 might not land safely, even when history tells us otherwise.
“Argo” and “Lincoln” are two films that successfully tread these waters, and now comes “Zero Dark Thirty,” Kathryn Bigelow’s eagerly awaited follow-up to “The Hurt Locker.”
She and screenwriter Mark Boal have consciously chosen to take a just-the-facts-ma’am approach to the manhunt and subsequent killing of Osama bin Laden, and while there’s no denying the skill with which they’ve gone about telling the tale, the results are simultaneously uninvolving and somewhat infuriating.
Uninvolving, to some extent, because the people in this movie are not so much characters as they are plot functionaries, chess pieces that move around strategically to capture their target. Jessica Chastain stars as Maya, a CIA agent who, with each passing year, grows more determined to nab the man behind the 9/11 attacks.
There’s nothing wrong with this style of storytelling — giving us some backstory about Maya’s taste in men or love of antique cars or whatever wouldn’t necessarily add anything to what Bigelow and Boal are trying to do here — but it’s a gamble that doesn’t quite pay off.
After spending its first half getting into the false leads and call-tracing and all the nitty-gritty of a manhunt, “Zero Dark Thirty” subjects its capable lead character to the requisite scene in which she snaps and barks at her bureaucrat boss (played by Kyle Chandler) that she’s so close, and not to take her off the case.
It’s a moment that feels like it might have come from any given episode of “Homeland” or any TNT show about a plucky female cop, and it capsizes a movie that, until that point, had been a fairly fascinating examination of the unglamorous sausage-making that goes into a worldwide search for a terrorist.
The somewhat infuriating facet comes early on, as we watch Maya observe seasoned interrogator Dan (Jason Clarke, giving a fascinating performance) torture terror suspects to find out what they know about Sept. 11. The movie indirectly implies that waterboarding and electrodes to the genitals and all that other stuff that George W. Bush’s consiglieri convinced him were kosher actually resulted in actionable intelligence, despite the reams of reportage that suggested otherwise.
I believe Bigelow and Boal’s after-the-fact denials that they intended to glorify torture in any way, but when you include material like this in a movie that takes such a coolly detached tone in telling its story, you can’t then be surprised later when some viewers interpret a filmmaker’s neutral tone as an implicit endorsement.
Still, even if the eventual raid on the bin Laden compound isn’t as exciting as the film’s first half (this is where some “Argo”-style suspense might have come in handy), there’s a lot to recommend about “Zero Dark Thirty,” which more often than not reflects Bigelow’s consummate abilities as an action filmmaker; her no-frills skills in mounting car chases, surveillance and the other tools of the CIA trade get a full workout.
The acting is also uniformly strong, although if you found the parade of famous faces popping up in “Lincoln” to be distracting, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Many recognizable performers turn up very briefly for their chance to be in the new Bigelow movie, to the occasional point of distraction. (I started counting lines from well-known actors; “Torchwood” star John Barrowman? Two.)
And even if “Zero Dark Thirty” packs something less of a punch than “The Hurt Locker,” it’s still a movie that’s going to part of the national discussion, both politically and artistically, and deservedly so. Whether you love it, hate it, or have mixed feelings, it’s not to be ignored.