Kathryn Bigelow’s follow up to her 2009 multiple Academy Award winner, The Hurt Locker, has sparked plenty of debate following a swift journey from the headlines to the screen. The hunt by the CIA for Osama Bin Laden, the terrorist believed to be the orchestrator of the 9/11 attacks, was a decade-spanning investigation fraught with tragedy, with his death announced less than two years ago. Bigelow has once again teamed up with journalist and screenwriting collaborator Mark Boal, and much like The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty is not structured like most feature films. It is comprised of tightly chronicled episodes; significant individual chapters over the investigated period relayed sequentially and encapsulated by a narrative and fascinating character study.
Expecting less an action film than a tense and evocative procedural/bureaucratic struggle, I left the cinema shaken, and further contemplation has left me assured that it is a remarkable filmmaking achievement worthy of the lofty praise bestowed upon it.
Maya (Jessica Chastain), a CIA operative recruited out of High School, is assigned to the U.S embassy in Pakistan to lead a hunt for the al-Qaeda leader. She targets men believed to have been one-time acquaintances – couriers and moneymen – in the hopes that they can shed further insight on important members of his inner circle and ultimately his location. Over the course of the grueling investigation, which involves the torture of detainees for intelligence, until new administration threatens to prosecute any officers involved, and the search for the true identity of Maya’s primary lead, her life is threatened several times. Significant attacks during this period are recreated and despite losing agents and facing dead ends, Maya desperately tries to persuade her superiors to continue funding the investigation.
The performances from the large ensemble are all sensational. Chastain is very good and having burst onto the scene last year with a string of impressive performances, she proves that she is one versatile actress. The more I think about why I wasn’t more emotionally involved with her character, the more I realize that by offering limited personal information and intimately involving us with someone who is so dedicated to their work that they are on another level in terms of relatability, the more I admire her. The final sequence did not provoke as much of a reaction as I expected, but I was still catching my breath from the unbearably tense finale raid immediately prior. The final image is now embedded in my memory.
She barely says a word in the film’s opening thirty minutes but we see her evolve from a woman clearly unsettled by the interrogation methods she is forced to resort to, into a willing participator and instigator. During one interrogation scene when she doesn’t get the ‘fulsome’ answer she is looking for, she simply taps the arm of a fellow agent signifying that physical coercion is required. Initially wary of overextending herself and stepping on the toes of her more experienced colleagues, she becomes headstrong, confident that her hunches and assessment of probability are correct, and the only one who believes that the needle can be found in the haystack. As her frustrations mount, Maya grows increasingly fatigued and rundown. She barely smiles, she curses out-of-line, and is generally unpleasant to be in the presence of. But for what reason does she feel responsible for bringing the American people a sense of closure? She feels she has come too far, and lost too many friends, to turn back. She feels like she has been spared to finish this mission.
Australian actor Jason Clarke is outstanding as Dan, a man willing to get his hands dirty for the agency, but when he has been worn down and is wary of the new stance on interrogation, he retreats to a desk job in D.C. When Maya is desperate for a reliable colleague, he returns for an important mission, which exposes another side to his character. Mention must also go to Kyle Chandler, Mark Strong (aggressive towards those he is in charge of, but sympathetic when he brings Maya’s plans to his superiors and is frequently overruled) and Jennifer Ehle (whose work in one of the film’s tensest sequences is marvelous), who are all terrific. James Gandolfini, Mark Duplass, Joel Edgerton and Chris Pratt make appearances in even smaller roles, but are all very well considered choices.
Every scene is meticulously evaluated and intelligently staged. The devastating attacks, the tense pursuits and heated exchanges will leave you gasping in equal measure. The editing team of William Goldenberg and Dylan Tichenor do a fantastic job ensuring the film’s sporadic structure is crisply assembled and relaying space within an individual scene for the purposes of building tension. When immersed in the search for a single individual within a bustling city – a timely aerial shot reveals just how difficult this search is and how easy potential threats could go unnoticed. DP Greig Fraser’s (Killing Them Softly) precise hand-held work takes us intimately into the boardrooms and cubicles where a lot of the important plot developments take place, and his feat of capturing the soldiers clearly during the final raid under the cover of pitch-black darkness is also notable. Alexandre Desplat’s dark, humming score perfectly accompanies the action – and even accompanies how you are feeling about what you are seeing. It is understated and never intrusive.
By taking a stance that doesn’t adopt a singular political perspective, Boal and Bigelow rely on facts and chronicle this thrilling manhunt via the experiences of a driven female operative, posing challenging questions along the way. Zero Dark Thirty is as tense as any great thriller, but the drama swelling within the agency creates characters and situations we care about. Overlooking Bigelow for Best Director is a mystery to me. To so convincingly convey a story of this magnitude and importance and keep an audience glued to their seat for the duration is highly commendable work, and is even more impressive than her last film, arguably one of great war films of the last decade.
Andrew Buckle - follow Andy on Twitter here: @buckle22