Zero Dark Thirty ***
Running Time: 157 minutes
Directed By: Kathryn Bigelow
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Ehle, Mark Strong and Joel Edgerton
AFTER an eleven year search America finally got their man, but at what cost? Kathryn Bigelow’s latest feature explores the decade long hunt for al-Qaeda terrorist Osama bin Laden, leaving it ambiguous to viewers to decide whether the success of the manhunt was due to the CIA’s covert use of aggressive integration or due to the obsession of one agent.
Much like in her previous feature The Hurt Locker, Bigelow places a skilled but socially inept character at the heart of her feature. Jessica Chastain is fantastic as CIA agent Maya, the talented operative determined to find bin Laden. Her character described as a killer by her colleagues was recruited straight from high school by the CIA , lacks any real social kills, happier working on a computer than interacting with her co-workers. Chastain’s impressive performance earned the American an Oscar Nomination and Golden Globe win earlier this year. There’s something almost Sarah Connor-like about her performance, as a strong central heroine in a male dominated environment.
Bigelow’s Oscar nominated film has courted considerable controversy throughout Hollywood in recent months for its graphic depiction of the techniques used by CIA operatives during interrogations of al-Qaeda prisoners. Most noticeably their use of water-boarding and sensory deprivation, but any viewer who has watched Kiefer Sutherland’s character Jack Bauer in 24 in action, won’t be shocked at what occurs onscreen. For me the most upsetting moment in the film wasn’t the torture sequences, but the unsettling audio clips of 9/11 victims played at the beginning of the film.
She leaves it ambiguous to viewers to decide how effective the use of torture was in gaining information, with most of the major breakthroughs coming through luck and chance. But it’s true the feature never offers any real objection the practise, Maya is often a passive observer throughout, more focussed on her objective than what’s happening in front of her. Ironically the CIA’s chief interrogator’s breaking point is the death of his two captive monkeys, more upset by their deaths than the violence he has perpetrated.
In my opinion the feature was definitely a film of two halves, the latter of which was definitely stronger. The film’s first hour and half traces events from the 9/11 attacks to the discovery of bin Laden’s suspected location in Pakistan. It’s narratively fractious, lurching from each intelligence breakthrough and terrorist attack. It a tad cumbersome and laboured and felt like the director was trying to connect the dots within the one narrative. But once bin Laden’s suspected location is discovered, the film really shifts into gear with the build-up and preparation for the mission by S.E.A.L. Team 6. There’s a real sense of uncertainty in each scene as CIA and White House officials discuss the potential political ramifications of such a covert act.
When the final ok is given by the President, Bigelow extracts every ounce of tension onscreen as the mission takes place. From the SEAL Team’s helicopter journey through the hills of Pakistan under the shadow of darkness, to the assault on bin Laden’s compound, the sequence seen almost entirely through the team’s night-vision goggles is nail-bitingly tense. To its credit the feature doesn’t glorify or flag wave the successful outcome of the mission, by the end Maya’s character is left as little more than an empty shell, her decade long obsession at an end and her own future now uncertain.
Despite its gripping finale, for me the feature didn’t reach the levels of Bigelow’s previous Oscar-winning film, The Hurt Locker. The two share similar concepts but Zero Dark Thirty felt slightly hollow in comparison. It dabbles in ideas without fully exploring them, leaving viewers with the conclusion that the means justify the end. It’s true Bigelow’s feature is a Hollywoodized interpretation of the decade long hunt for bin Laden, but that’s exactly its main problem. The Hurt Locker had a gritty almost documentary quality to it, but Zero Dark Thirty just felt too cinematic and simplistic at times. So despite all the good things within the film, it still left me a tad underwhelmed and disappointed.
Review By William McClean