A few years ago Kathryn Bigelow took the film world by storm with her Iraq-set bomb disposal war movie The Hurt Locker, going on to win multiple Oscars including Best Picture and Best Director. Now she and screenwriter Mark Boal are back with another forceful, uncompromising film about the conflict in the Middle East, Zero Dark Thirty.
Set in the near past, the film follows the search for Public Enemy No.1, Osama bin Laden, detailing the government’s tactics to gain information and track him, headed by the determined Maya (Jessica Chastain). The title refers to a military term that describes half past midnight and in the words of Bigelow herself it, “refers also to the darkness and secrecy that cloaked the entire decade long mission.”
The film was initially being made at a point where bin Laden was actually still alive and evading capture. The fact that he was tracked down and killed part way through meant that Bigelow and Boal had there ending. The perfect ending you might say, a way to wrap up what is ultimately a revenge story, albeit set in the deep end of a very real and difficult point in history.
The film has already caused a lot of controversy, to go hand-in-hand with its multiple Oscar nominations, mainly due to its depiction of torture at the hands of government operatives trying to extract information on the whereabouts of that most famous of targets. It’s true that the film is very frank and open about the things it shows but the accusations of it somehow condoning torture are entirely unfair; the film is merely showing a problematic truth and dealing head on with a murky subject. To somehow blunt or omit those crucial scenes would be to deliver a dishonest experience for the audience. It should be difficult and unnerving to watch, this isn’t an easy story and the film is all the better that it doesn’t turn it into some sort of Bourne-esque tale where the action is number one on the priority list.
Central to the film working as well as it does is the cast – including the likes of Jason Clarke, Mark Strong, Kyle Chandler, Joel Edgerton and James Gandolfini to name but a few – but particularly the performance of Jessica Chastain, an actress who has justifiably risen fast in Hollywood over the last few years. She has one heck of a difficult role here, playing a woman who has to make her mark as a strong-willed, capable individual surrounded by powerful men in suits. She’s our anchor throughout the film and Chastain manages the difficult task of making us believe in her and her quest to find her target without making her a figure we just have to feel sorry for and that’s it.
At almost two hours and 40 minutes, Zero Dark Thirty isn’t exactly a short film light on its feet. But thanks to a consistently compelling script by Boal, who once again brings an air of authenticity to the proceedings because of his experience as a war journalist, the film is never boring and completely justifies its hefty runtime. After a skillful build-up consisting of heated discussions, tactical planning and the occasional bit of shocking action (helped hugely by Alexandre Desplat’s subtle yet effective score), the film delivers an absolutely astonishing final act that bluntly showcases the NAVY S.E.A.L. Team closing in on bin Laden in his fortress-like compound. I’d be surprised if we got a more tense sequence anytime soon.
Bigelow should be applauded for what she’s achieved here, taking a very recent and very tricky true story and turning it into an intricate, challenging and compelling piece of cinema that, remarkably, has the power to keep the audience on the edge of their seat despite them knowing how it’s going to end. This is the kind of raw, nail-biting filmmaking that doesn’t come along very often.
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