Review: Zero Dark Thirty

Players: Kathryn Bigelow (DIR), Jessica Chastain, Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Elhe, Mark Strong, Joel Edgerton (link to the trailer, if this review doesn’t convince you to go and see it).

Before going to see this film I decided I had better brush up on my knowledge on the search for Bin Laden. It having gone on for a decade or so, I figured there were a few things I might need to know prior to watching one of the most controversial films of the year so far. So whilst sitting in Cafe Nero, trying to obscure the words ‘torture porn’ and ‘terrorism’ from the people sitting next to me, I quickly crammed in all that I could read about ‘The Saudi Group, ‘Tora Bora’ and ‘Black Sites’.

Whilst a little bit of background info certainly helps when political and CIA jargon is being fired at you faster than a round of bullets, it’s not imperative to understanding the film. Director Kathryn Bigelow (Point Break, The Hurt Locker) creates a sort of docudrama that is edge of your seat gripping. One might think that the days, turning to months, turning to years of investigations, false leads and waiting for sources, opportunities or evidence would make for a drawn out and insufferable film. Bigelow however, does a fantastic job of selecting exactly what you need to know – covering both the 9/11 and 7/7 attacks in a tasteful, victim-oriented way, as well as the methods used in the manhunt.
She shows enough that you gather it’s a central part to the search for Bin Laden, without over-sentimentalising it, as well as focusing on the process as it changes. From the political decisions made, i.e. the ending of detainee project/extraordinary rendition policy to the changing of government from Republican to Democratic, Bigelow has a timeline constantly in the background – reminding us of its basis in facts, but providing us with a human connection to this debilitating, frustrating and alienating struggle for a world terrorist target through her protagonist Maya, played with fierce restraint and conviction by Jessica Chastain.
Maya is a heroine you root for. She’s a ballsy ‘motherfucker’ (as she tells White House aide James Gandolfini) who has sacrificed friends, a social life and any sense of normality to chase the bad guy for 12 long years. It’s jarring when Maya and a female colleague exchange IM’s expressing excitement about a source-turned-suicide bomber who might have provided information in the same way you and a friend might chat about your plans for a girl’s night in. They have devoted their existence to this search. But at the same time it’s not saccharine in its portrayal of this; we don’t see photos of missed relatives and the only tears shed are at the end of the long process when the sole aim motivating Maya’s career has finally been killed. Where does one go from there?
It is also ballsy filmmaking. Bigelow has become the industry’s go-to-girl for politically charged war movies that look at things from a different perspective. This isn’t fighting from the frontline, nor from behind the desk – it’s not afraid to limit the action when there isn’t any, nor detail the failures when they happen. The final sequence when the ‘kill-team’ breaks into Bin Laden’s suspected compound is excruciatingly tense; most of us know what happened, but not how and apart from a few unexpected explosions, the film is free from fancy pyrotechnics or crowd-pleasing thrills. This is cold, calculating objectivity, still seen through the lens of patriotism and seeking rightful vengeance for the homeland, but without the added doses of demagogy and liberalism that have peppered various other productions on similar topics. And before you get all hot under your collar about how it endorses the use of torture – fuck right off. It doesn’t. Not in the slightest. It shows torture to be part of the process, it doesn’t overplay the interrogation techniques or show them to be utterly vital in capturing OBL. Bigelow couldn’t have made this film without mentioning that the detainee policy was an integral part to CIA operations both pre and post 9/11. Perhaps it is a seedy and shameful underbelly to a country that considers itself to be morally righteous and advocates of democracy with a capital D, but Bigelow doesn’t glamorise this process. It emotionally destroys the character of Dan whom we first meet water-boarding a captured prisoner and eventually leaves to take a more removed job at CIA HQ Langley and ultimately it doesn’t provide Maya or the operatives with the information they want or need. The first victim Anmar reveals intelligence about a courier after being deprived, humiliated and abused; the scenes in which he is tied by ropes, crammed into a box or stripped naked are not easy to watch – if anything they serve as deterrents of torture techniques than support for it. It then takes years for Maya to prove that this courier even knew or worked for Bin Laden or that he was important to al-Quaeda. Torture was not indispensable to the search for Bin Laden, but it is an inherent part to the film’s honesty about it.
Those who actually work in the CIA may find it to be over-dramatised or over-simplified, with a whip-smart protagonist and ineffective leadership pandering to the cliché of ‘Maya against the world’. But polished, glitzy Hollywood filmmaking this is not. It is at once a compelling spy thriller and a realistic documentary. John Barrowmen’s cameo momentarily sucks you out of thinking it the latter, but on the whole the performances reaffirm this notion. Chastain’s is a powerhouse, career-changing performance. She is introduced to us as a rookie; softly spoken, wearing her best suit to an interrogation and nervously playing with her hands as she participates in her first act of torture. The manhunt hardens her; she shuts off from human interaction (the one time we see her ‘socialising’ ends in a bombing of the restaurant) and rejects the idea of sleeping with a colleague. At once an emotional fortress and achingly fragile, she proves herself just as smart, focused and forceful as any man on the team and the haunting intensity that Chastain gives Maya – during the ending especially, really evokes the film’s central question of whether it was all worth it. Does the end justify the means?

Reliable support is provided from Kyle Chandler as Maya’s boss; the official bureaucrat who struggles to devote himself or the government’s money in the same way Maya does, as well as Jennifer Elhe and Jason Clarke as the colleagues who suffer the burden of duty in different ways.

I left the cinema feeling a little emotionally drained and exhausted, but utterly impressed with the filmmaking. Don’t expect party poppers or fireworks as the climax occurs; this is not a film that necessarily celebrates the death of Osama Bin Laden. Instead it holds up a magnifying glass to how it happened. It depicts the complicity and controversy of morally ambiguous policies – weaving its way effectively through the nitty gritty of the 9/11 aftermath and America’s conscience, but without ever swaying you towards a side. It’s a risky tactic, as debates about the film’s stance on torture have proved – but one that I think pays off in dividends.
As technically proficient as it is compelling, the use of a grainy camera feel adds to the stripped back realism of the film, whilst the framing and costuming of Maya show her to become more and more embroiled in the manhunt. Equally, the editing builds suspense in the right places; you can sense when something isn’t quite right, but without resorting to sensationalism. The pacing could be said to be patchy in places, however the 157 minute running time never drags and if anything it adds to the feeling of tedium that embodied the wild-goose chase. Not as visceral or searing as The Hurt Locker, but once again Bigelow proves herself a master of the provocative, pared down and politically relevant.
Verdict: Taut, clinical and well-executed, it lays down the facts and lets you make a judgement.