Zero Dark Thirty is Kathryn Bigelow’s outstanding follow-up to her Oscar winning picture The Hurt Locker. The film isn’t directly related to that picture, though they both feature terrorism, explosions (both physical and political) and extremely determined professionals. But this is film is actually a different beast altogether. Instead of giving the audience a minutely detailed character study, as she did with her previous movie, Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal attempt to tell the story of the biggest and most expensive manhunts in history: the search for Osama Bin Laden.
The story is told largely from the perspective of a CIA worker, here known as Maya, who obsessively pursues her target until he is caught. She is intense and very driven, and not a million miles away from Jeremy Renner’s lead role in The Hurt Locker.
Maya is played by Jessica Chastain, an American actor who has seemingly appeared from nowhere. After spending a number of years in television, in shows as diverse as ER and Agatha Christie’s Poirot, she has suddenly exploded into the Hollywood spotlight, and has now worked on equally diverse but prominent cinema projects such as The Tree of Life, Texas Killing Fields, Lawless and, believe it or not, Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted. She has become a real force to be reckoned with – exceptionally talented and in high demand. She grittily evokes the passion and commitment Maya gives her task. Her performance is thoroughly compelling.
I recently argued that Django Unchained, Tarantino’s latest, was trying to cultivate a sense of controversy it didn’t really warrant. If people want a controversial film, they should look to Zero Dark Thirty. And people have been looking at it. Many blogs and comment pieces have discussed the way torture is portrayed in the film. Bigelow herself has been drawn into the discussion. She claims leaving it out would have been untruthful. The American government claim Osama Bin Laden’s death wasn’t made possible by the use of torture. Critics of the film claim that Bigelow makes it look as if torture is an effective means to an end. This issue could be debated for years (it probably will be). It’s a very tricky subject – one I’m not sure I know the answer to, if there is an answer to give. The movie does focus on extreme interrogation techniques (including sleep deprivation and sexualised humiliation) that the CIA may or may not have used when gathering information. They also show Maya complicit in such activities. I found them uncomfortable, and I will wrestle for a while on the subject of how these scenes impact on the movie as a whole. But I am being entirely truthful when I say that, regardless of the politics, I believe this to be an exceptionally well-made film.
One would be entirely in the right to argue that one can’t disregard the politics when faced with such a potent and political film such as this. But I believe the morality of it is ambiguous enough for people to form their own opinions about the uncomfortable aspects of Zero Dark Thirty.
If anyone wanted a masterclass in how to make an intelligent, thoughtful, exciting movie that blends action with world-class acting, this film would be the one to watch. As well as Chastain, there is a huge collection of talent on display in front of the camera here. Mark Strong, Jason Clarke, Jennifer Ehle, Kyle Chandler, and James Gandolfini all contribute superb supporting turns. Behind the camera, cinematographer Greig Fraser does an amazing job with the composition of the frame. Every shot accentuates the tension, either through movement or light. The beautifully clear look he gives the movie makes everything seem shockingly real without giving it the feel of a news report. All this is complemented by Alexandre Desplat’s sensitive score; perhaps his most understated and effective to date.
For those who want an action movie that doesn’t push any buttons and leads them through by the hand around banal narrative twists, watch Transformers. This film, however, is set in the real world, where things are murky and elusive. Bigelow’s action movies presume their audiences have the initiative to think for themselves. They understand that both verbal conversations and scenes of quick-edited gunfire have equal potential to shock and enthral. Nobody is making movies quite like her right now. Memorable doesn’t even cover it.
Zero Dark Thirty (2012), directed by Kathryn Bigelow, is distributed in the UK by Universal Pictures, Certificate 15.