Zero Dark Thirty 2012 ★★★

That's a very grudging three stars, because — like Flight — there's more to chew on than I initially realized, but I still think it's kind of a crappy movie. Let me count the ways:

1) The first third in particular wore me down. I exceedingly dislike the way Bigelow transforms 7/7, the 2008 Islamabad Marriott bombing and the bombing of Camp Chapman into standard suspense setpieces (when will that explosive go off?). The latter particularly rubbed the wrong way: the longer Bigelow keeps intercutting between Maya's chat window and the guilelessly optimistic CIA officials awaiting their big break is downright sadistic. (It was just another gchat session UNTIL.) Is there intent here to make the viewer tensely ever-expectant of disaster, compelling identification with Maya's one-track quest? Maybe, but it's still obscenely button-pushing filmmaking imo.

2) There are a bunch of scenes here we've all sat through before, and at a certain point I don't care how many people Mark Boal talked to. Maybe national security really comes down, at a certain point, to Jessica Chastain getting feisty in a hallway and chewing Kyle Chandler out, demanding WHAT SHE NEEDS NOW OR A CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATION (so firey!), but I've seen this particular conflict way too many times before. Unless the point is that the CIA is a dysfunctional, badly run organization running on too much human impulsiveness, ass-covering and poor coordination. But somehow I doubt that.

3) The torture thing: over at The Atlantic, Mark Bowden lays out the most evenhanded assessment I've read of whether or not "enhanced interrogation" contributed useful information, and in turn how the movie portrays that. There's a case to be made that the movie tacitly depicts such methods as mostly producing junk results in addition to being morally corrosive and politically suicidal on the global stage — but there's an even stronger case to be made that the movie deliberately hedges its bets, refusing to take a clearly parsable stance. I suppose the alternative would be to have another, extraneous scene in which a separate person is "interrogated" in an "enhanced" manner to no end at all, but that would probably irritate me equally. So whatever.

4) The climactic storming of the bin Laden household is admittedly very compelling and well-shot, though honestly it doesn't do much that Bigelow didn't do already, some 17 years ago, in Strange Days. And yes, it's "morally ambiguous," complete with downbeat music from the ever-hacky Alexandre Desplat and the death of innocents, which of course could be transferred into an implicit argument about the moral/political failure of indiscriminate drone bombings, the misdirection of American political priorities into vengeance at the expense of foreign civilians, etc. etc. Bigelow certainly makes sure to include a lot of screaming/crying women and children, just to hammer the point home, but I dislike movies which lean on empathy rather than ethics (that's closer to bathos than thinking). By this point, I'd lapsed into such a torpor I maybe didn't appreciate how impressive this sequence was logistically; I'd kind of like to see it again out of context. Which itself is a problem.

5) The Obama administration refused to release photos of bin Laden's corpse, but Zero Dark Thirty gives you exactly that. Even then, not precisely: it's an overhead shot, with his head and body more out of focus at the bottom of the frame, more clearly seen through the photo snapped by a soldier. Why show this? I'm asking, genuinely.

6) (THIS IS MAYBE A SPOILER) When they're storming the house, a soldier calls out "Osama?." Very cat and mouse. Much unnerving laughter in the multiplex in response.

7) The most impressive part of this movie is the black-screen audio collage of 9/11.

8) Maya's character is maybe ambiguous. When she says she feels she's been "spared" in order to kill bin Laden, she sounds awfully like George W. Bush, who repeatedly said God had told him to do whatever. But at the end? When the pilot asks her where she's going and she doesn't answer because SHE SYMBOLICALLY DOESN'T KNOW WHERE SHE'S GOING AND NEITHER DOES THE NATION? Maybe the pilot can drop her down next to Tom Hanks at the Cast Away crossroads.

9) No one ever cast James Gandolfini as a real world figure ever again. Leon Panetta my ass.