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Much is troubling about “Zero Dark Thirty,” perhaps the least of which is the controversy – which ultimately embroiled Congress in hearings – about whether torture helped bring down Osama Bin Laden.
Three U.S. senators complained the movie was “grossly inaccurate” regarding the efficacy of “enhanced interrogation.” But the movie does not purport to be a documentary; its opening credits say it was “based on first-hand accounts of actual events,” which gave the filmmakers plenty of leeway.
In any case the evidence produced by torture in the movie was only one piece of a big puzzle. Ultimately what succeeded was old-fashioned, on-the-ground intel, plus hard work, advanced technology and crafty intuition, the latter supplied by a CIA operative known as Maya and well-played by Jessica Chastain.
Unfortunately Ms. Chastain’s performance, which was nominated for an Academy Award, is not matched by other aspects of the movie. The script is merely workmanlike when it is not over-the-top melodramatic. “I’m gonna smoke everyone involved in this operation, then I’m gonna kill Bin Laden,” Maya tells a colleague. “I want targets,” a CIA bigwig screams at his staff. “Do your [effing] jobs and bring me people to kill.” A viewer might have expected Marshal Dillon and Chester to ride onto the scene, wielding their trusty six-shooters.
Small things, too, detract from the movie. The title, for example, is a term for half an hour past midnight; it is never explained and bears no importance to the story. The score could have been plucked from a dismal horror movie. And Jessica Ehle, a veteran of some fine movies (“The King’s Speech,” “The Ides of March”), is miscast in the role of Jessica, Maya’s chatty friend and colleague. Whenever she is on screen, the viewer becomes uncomfortably aware of watching “acting.”
But the most serious problem for a bladder-wrenchingly long movie of more than 150 minutes is that precious few of them generate any serious tension.
The first two hours of “Zero Dark 30” meander slowly through the torturous (and tortuous) process of finding the trail that led to the Bin Laden compound in Abbottabad. The last half hour, the raid itself, is competently played and even gripping, but the outcome is already known.
The ineffectiveness is a surprise. The story is tailor-made for a great epic, and the writer-director team of Mark Boal and Kathryn Bigelow, who created the “The Hurt Locker,” which won the Oscar for best picture of 2008, would seem ideal for the job. But here they have made a movie that is dreary and depressing. It might be a good docudrama, but it is a soulless film.
Far more interesting is “Flight,” the Robert Zemeckis-directed thriller now available on DVD. It stars the incomparable Denzel Washington as Whip Whitaker, a veteran commercial airline pilot. Mr. Washington gives a brilliant – nuanced, powerful and totally believable – performance as someone fighting, feeding and finessing his demons with coke and booze.
But even intoxicated, Whitaker manages a miraculous landing when the plane suffers a catastrophic failure. The flight scenes are thrilling and terrifying. Then, like the jet, the movie takes a sharp turn: Toxicology reports pick up traces of drugs in Whitaker’s system, and the rest of the movie is a serious morality tale about his “flight” from responsibility, succumbing to and coming to terms with addiction.
The supporting performances, with John Goodman as Whip’s pusher and Don Cheadle as his attorney, are terrific. But mostly it is Mr. Washington’s command of the movie (he is in almost every scene) that invests “Flight” with power, excitement and satisfaction.