If you watched the trailer above for Zero Dark Thirty, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was a cinematic Call of Duty, a jingoistic portrayal of the war on terrorism, an action film where Bert Macklin, Drazic and Joel Edgerton kill Osama Bin Laden.
Certainly, the last hour of the film is a tense, cavernous action sequence that manages to be truly engaging and thoroughly realistic simultaneously. But the two hours before the climax are spent primarily as a counterterrorism procedural: Zodiac via Homeland. It’s a long film, but it needs to be to carry the burden of time and energy and effort that went into something as simple as shooting an old man in the face.
Zero Dark Thirty has caught flak for advocating torture, and it could as easily be argued as promoting persistence and sheer bloody-mindedness. But it’s not clear that the film wants you to interpret the end result as a victory – as the camera pans over a murky pool of blood, or a room crowded with recently orphaned children, or the exhausted, hollow expression of Jessica Chastain (who shoulders the film with an exceptional, understated performance), there’s paltry evidence that the ends justified the means.