Initially, I had misgivings about seeing this film. I was uncomfortable with the subject matter and unsure that it could, or should, be appropriately made into entertainment.
I should have realised that as it was Kathryn Bigelow that was directing this film (and not Michael Bay for example), it would be dealt with with thoughtfulness and subtlety. Bigelow has proved herself to be a skilled and sensitive director with 2008’s excellent The Hurt Locker and the patriotism on display in both that and this is far more ambiguous than one might expect from a film dealing with the War on Terror.
Zero Dark Thirty depicts the CIA’s decade long search for al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden after the 9/11 attacks. It follows intelligence analyst Maya (Jessica Chastain) as she relentlessly pursues leads that eventually culminate in the storming of his hideout and his death at the hands of Navy SEALS.
From the first moments of a black screen and the distressing sounds of phone messages to loved ones from those trapped in the twin towers on 9/11, you know that this film will not be a comfortable watch. The torture scenes in particular make very difficult viewing but are necessary to the telling of the story so don’t feel gratuitous. The routine tediousness and frustration of tracking down leads and setting up surveillance are an interesting counterpoint to the slick and exciting spy-stuff of Bourne and Bond and feel all the more real for it.
Despite the large cast most characters have the opportunity to become more than one-dimensional plot-movers, which takes skill in terms of scripting and direction (although the brief John Barrowman cameo bothered me as I kept expecting him to beam or burst into song.)
There is a lot of talent on display but it’s Chastain’s film. Her character, Maya, is not particularly likeable but she is watchable. Chastain imbues Maya with a tense fragility and a repressed emotion that is quite brilliant. Her drive and ruthlessness are not characteristics that drew my empathy but you feel her need to see this grim business through to the conclusion. Interestingly she’s almost entirely absent for the climax of the film but her final scene, boarding the empty cargo plane alone to take her back to Washington, the trauma, exhaustion and relief overwhelming her as she realises that the long years of pursuit are over, is extremely moving. It’s an impressive performance.
It’s an intelligent film slickly and tightly directed. There are some real shocks and I jumped in my seat more than once. The use of light is very effective – many of the scenes have a drab washed-out look that seems to mirror the exhaustion of the seemingly fruitless and endless pursuit. The shock of the sunlight after the semi-darkness of the huts used for the torture scenes is akin to the emotional assault of what’s been experienced inside.
Zero Dark Thirty doesn’t have the emotional pull of The Hurt Locker; it’s about process and pursuit and thus lacks the human centre but it’s none the less gripping and tensely watchable for that. Bigelow treads the balance between documentary and entertainment, voyeurism and accurate portrayal and for the most part succeeds admirably.
This film richly deserves it’s Oscar nomination – it’s an emotive and controversial subject handled intelligently and however you feel about the real life events Bigelow ultimately allows you to make up your own mind.