If you don’t know what this film is about by now then maybe you should consider the ancient Tibetan philosophy* and “check yourself before you wreck yourself”. There are no spoilers here. If you’ve read a newspaper, any newspaper, or looked at a news site, any news site, within the past two years then you already know the plot. It follows arguably the greatest manhunt in history: the search for and eventual execution of Osama bin Laden. Lets not waste any time talking about a story you already know and get straight into the nitty gritty. Jessica Chastain has been pushed to the fore in Zero Dark Thirty’s awards season campaigns due to her powerful performance as the high-strung C.I.A agent single-mindedly pursuing Osama. Someone just as worthy of praise and shiny gongs is Aussie Jason Clarke who deserves more A-List roles after his lasting portrayal of a government interrogator. But unlike other Oscar favourites Lincoln or Life Of Pi, the brilliance of Zero Dark Thirty doesn’t come down to one performance – it comes down to all of them. From supporting C.I.A operatives like Mark Duplass, Edgar Ramirez, Fares Fares and Kyle Chandler, to the cast of Navy Seals in Joel and Nash Edgerton, Callan Mulvey, and Chris Pratt – everyone is good. No, everyone is perfect at drawing you in to this epic investigative saga.
As any woman will tell you, something that peaks within the first 10 minutes is going to have a hard time meeting your expectations down the track. What director Kathryn Bigelow does is not only give you opening satisfaction, but she continues adding new elements, new players and new developments that keep the story developing and evolving until the tension in the final hour is almost Argo-esque. She’s delicate, taking her time to carefully tip toe the audience towards a conclusion we already know the result of. Yet it’s one that’s just as riveting thanks to her sublime skill as a filmmaker.
Perhaps one of the most admirable things Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal do is appreciate the people sitting in the theatre. Zero Dark Thirty doesn’t speak down to us, it doesn’t simplify the plot or conveniently summarise the characters. Definitions of heroes and villains aren’t delivered on a silver platter. The web Al-Qaeda has woven is a complex one and the film makes you work for every piece of understanding you can string together – which makes you appreciate each revelation all the more. This gamble could have backfired a la A Mighty Heart – the underrated adaptation based on the book by the wife of a journalist who was kidnapped and eventually beheaded by Al-Queda, Daniel Pearl. The film – starring Angelina Jolie as his wife Mariane – played this extremely traumatic event with an almost emotionless focus. Shot like a documentary, it followed the characters as they desperately tried to navigate the web of names, aliases, shadow organisations and bribes that have been integral to the terrorist group succeeding. This overload of information ostracised a lot of viewers – most, in fact – but Bigelow and Boal have perfected what that film couldn’t by giving us pockets of humanity in the long cast of players.
Kathryn Bigelow being overlooked for a best director nomination is equally as mind-boggling as Ben Affleck and Quentin Tarantino’s snubs. The greatest trick the Academy ever pulled was fooling the general public into thinking it was still relevant which – in a world where the trio just named aren’t considered superior to any of the other five directors nominated – it no longer is.
Complex, intricate, and with more moving parts than a cleverly designed bomb, Zero Dark Thirty is a film that blows up your expectations of just how good a cat-and-mouse story can be.
Maria Lewis - follow Maria on Twitter here: @moviemazz
*Note: Not an actual ancient Tibetan philosophy. Duh.