Clearly someone who isn’t afraid of a challenge, Kathryn Bigelow follows up her Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker with Zero Dark Thirty, a film about the hunt for Osama bin Laden.
Beginning September 11 2001 and going right through to the assassination, the film moves speedily through the decade, pausing to occasionally point at significant events, such as the London bombings of 2005. Jessica Chastain plays Maya, a CIA operative who makes it her personal mission to find bin Laden, even after the CIA and US Government have seemingly lost interest.
Chastain is brilliant in the lead role. Maya is brilliant and determined, yet almost disturbingly obsessed with her target. We see her initially horrified in the presence of tortured suspects, but we subsequently see her put up walls so that she can get the job done. Unfortunately, the film never really tells us why Maya is so determined. At one stage someone asks about her past, but she replies that divulging that kind of information would be illegal.
This is indicative of the central problem with Zero Dark Thirty. Considering it had to be endorsed by the CIA, it’s hard to believe that we’re seeing the entire story. The Argo documents were only declassified in 2007, so how can we believe that the CIA are being completely open about an operation that culminated in 2011? Part of the brilliance of the film is that it doesn’t have a jingoistic ‘Yay for us!’ feel, nor does it criticise the depths to which the operatives had to sink to get the job done. It’s kind of in the middle; a case of ‘here’s how it went down, you decide how you feel about it’. Problem is, it’s impossible to believe we’re getting all the facts anyway.
If you ignore this aspect, however, Zero Dark Thirty is a greatly entertaining film. The direction, cinematography and editing is stunning (though perhaps there’s a bit too much handheld camerawork for Mark’s taste), and the 157 minute running time whizzed by, which is quite a rarity for someone like me who believes brevity to be the soul of wit. The last 40 minutes or so practically comprise another film in its own right, as we follow the special forces unit that infiltrate the compound in Pakistan. It’s masterfully handled and a tense piece of filmmaking, despite the fact we all know how it ends.
Whilst Jessica Chastain and Jason Clarke are the central characters, a tonne of recognisable faces come and go. The cast includes James Gandolfini, Harold Perrineau, Mark Strong, Jennifer Ehle, John Barrowman, Joel Edgerton and Nash Edgerton. For the most part, you’re never told who a lot of these people are, but the script is written in a way that’s easy to follow even if you don’t understand the nitty-gritty.
Zero Dark Thirty is a great film, though its faults are pretty significant. That we are able to sympathise with Maya despite knowing nothing about her is testament to the strength of Chastain’s performance, and in order to truly be taken along for the ride, you have to be comfortable with the fact that this isn’t even remotely a documentary, but a fictionalised account.Rating: