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Tom Tangney

Different movies, but hard to avoid comparisons between 'Zero Dark Thirty,' 'Hurt Locker'

The last time director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal did a movie, "The Hurt Locker," it won the Oscar for Best Picture.

Their new movie "Zero Dark Thirty" - about the hunt for Osama Bin Laden - is given a good chance at repeating their earlier success.

While both movies deal with our contemporary war on terror, "Zero Dark Thirty" is a very different kind of film than "The Hurt Locker." It's different in focus, tone, and pacing.

"The Hurt Locker" was a brilliantly tense and taut thriller focusing on a bomb disposal unit in Iraq. It was a detailed, ground-level look at the life of a soldier, a soldier who was at risk nearly every waking moment. The personal stakes couldn't be higher.

"Zero Dark Thirty," on the other hand, is more of a "big picture" take, charting this country's ten-year hunt for Osama Bin Laden.

The movie mostly zeroes in on the painstakingly slow work of intelligence gathering rather than on the more visceral military operations.

In other words, it's a lot more about CIA analysts than on-the-ground combatants, although the Navy SEALs Team 6 does get its due in the final 45 minutes of this two and a half hour movie.

But because ten years is a long time to cover in a film, and I suppose because much of the "action" takes place behind a desk and in front of a computer screen, "Zero Dark Thirty" is a much more meandering film experience than "The Hurt Locker."

It's more ambitious in some ways because its scope in grander but it's also more diffuse dramatically.

Director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal try to deal with this diffusion by personalizing the decade-long search, in the guise of a single, female CIA analyst. At times, this character played by Jessica Chastain seems more a dramatic device than a real person. It turns out there really was a woman who more than anyone else gets credit for tracking bin Laden down to that compound in Abbottabad.

She's called Maya in "Zero Dark Thirty" and Jen in "No Easy Day," the first hand account of the SEALs successful mission on Osama Bin Laden, but since she reportedly still works for the CIA, her real name is being kept under wraps.

As for the depiction of the raid in the movie, it seems accurate and realistic, especially since a lot of it is shot with night-vision lenses. But it's also unnecessarily confusing. A quick preview of the attack plans, just before the actual attack, would have helped us better understand exactly what was happening in the dead of night.

On the issue of torture as depicted in the movie, Bigelow and Boal are getting attacked by some members of Congress for making a film that seems to endorse torture.

The complaint is that the movie falsely suggests valuable information was gleaned from detainees who were waterboarded. I don't know what's true and what's not on that score, but I can say that the film seems decidedly neutral on the issue of torture. Those particular scenes, in the context of the entire movie, seem no more important than a dozen or more other scenes in this country's decade-long search for bin Laden.

All quibbling aside, I value and appreciate "Zero Dark Thirty's" meticulous attention to detail. The fact that it's not as dramatically compelling as The Hurt Locker is less a critique than an observation about the nature of the tasks depicted in the two films.

Tom Tangney, KIRO Radio Host, Film & Media Critic
Tom Tangney is the co-host of The Tom and Curley Show on KIRO Radio and resident enthusiast of...everything. As the film and media critic on the Morning News on KIRO Radio, he espouses his love for books, movies, TV, art, pop culture, politics, sports, and Husky football.
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