Kathryn Bigelow has certainly come a long way. Nobody expected The Hurt Locker to be a critical and commercial hit after it followed her prior feature film, the big-budget flop, K-19: The Widowmaker. Yet Zero Dark Thirty proves that she has pushed on by creating a hard-hitting and explosive historical dramatization of the pursuit and execution of Osama Bin Laden. Did we forget to mention the controversy of torture thrown into the mix?
Real audio of the events of 9/11 open the film, followed by CIA officer Dan (Jason Clarke) brutally interrogating a detainee in Pakistan. Fellow CIA officer Maya (Jessica Chastain) has just been reassigned to focus singularly on Bin Laden, and initially struggles with what she is seeing. After extracting vital information, they manage to obtain a lead.
Years pass in their pursuit with notable events happening – Dan going back to Washington, Maya surviving the Islamabad hotel bombing, a death of a colleague – but no real developments to the cause. However, with Maya’s determination and a bit of luck, there is soon a breakthrough regarding Bin Laden’s potential whereabouts. After some back-and-forth political confrontations within the organisation and the government, there can only be one inevitable conclusion.
The highly-publicized issue of torture is no doubt the talking point, but this is only graphically detailed in the first act. Although pivotal to the story, it should not be seen as the be-all-and-end-all of the film. That’s not to say it’s not disturbing – it’s tough viewing for sure. If you don’t know what waterboarding is, you definitely won’t forget after this.
Whatever people say, the film does subtly lean towards pro-torture as, ultimately, this is what leads Maya to Bin Laden. After informing her he’s leaving Pakistan, Dan also mentions, in a somewhat disheartening tone, “politics are changing and you don’t wanna be the last one holding the dog collar when the Oversight Committee comes”. Regardless of the political nature, no-one can deny Bigelow has transferred the perceptions of this technique to stunning detail on screen, making it impossible not to be transfixed.
Continuing the gritty style of realism which served her so well in The Hurt Locker, this, alongside the overall pacing, means despite the long runtime the film never drags, showing that she has really developed into a first-class director. She’s crafted an authentic and uncompromising look at the behind the scenes discussions and the interlinked, tragic events over the timeline. There’s also the small case of assembling an impressive cast list.
Jason Clarke really shines as the chief torturer, even though his appearance is cut short. There are additional small roles for Joel Edgerton, Mark Strong and James Gandolfini but undeniably, this is Jessica Chastain’s film. She has been lauded for her performance but, in truth, she does not really draw us into her character as she should, especially as we are meant to have followed her for a decade. There are a few scenes which showcase her ability, just the rest of the time there’s a subdued and flat nature to her performance. However, she carries the film just enough to not let it affect anything too much.
Finally, there’s the action of getting the man. Once it’s all been given the go-ahead, the tense infiltration and execution really is gripping. It’s cleverly shot to take you into the eyes of the soldiers, giving a real look into how these missions pan out. It’s a fitting finale to an engrossing film.
Summing up, you have three parts which make for an outstanding film; the torture, the discussions and the taking out of Bin Laden. Zero Dark Thirty is powerful, thought-provoking and much more than just a war film. It is the war film of the decade.