Bigelow’s astonishing new film Zero Dark Thirty takes vast, significant and often obfuscated events of America’s ‘war on terror’ as its subject, attempting to show in forensic detail and with a dispassionate eye the CIA’s hunt for al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden following his apparent escape from Afghanistan into Pakistan in late 2001. Journalist Mark Boal’s superb screenplay distils this into the story of one character, a CIA analyst called Maya (Chastain). As Maya sifts through a vast pool of intelligence gathered in the wake of the events of September the eleventh 2001, Boal and Bigelow fashion a gripping and suspenseful narrative. What begins as a hunt for a needle in a haystack, gradually narrows in focus towards a riveting climax as special forces close in on the compound where Maya believes the fugitive is in hiding.
Following continued al-Qaeda backed acts of terrorism against military and civilian targets - including an attempt on her own life - Maya’s dedication to the hunt becomes a near fanatical obsession that could be said to consume her entire life, except we are given little to no evidence that any such life existed in the first place. We learn Maya was recruited whilst in High School. In an awkward exchange with the CIA’s director (Gandolfini) in the Langley cafeteria, Maya is asked what she has done in her CIA career outside of the hunt for Bin Laden. Her brow furrows in confusion before her answer “nothing. I’ve done nothing else.” Chastain is exceptional in the role, giving a fierce and intelligent performance playing a character who is very far from a conventional Hollywood hero. Maya is brusque, has no time for social pleasantries, and is seen to alienate colleagues and superiors alike. As the film progresses both her conviction and her rage increase. It isn’t overtly stated, but this is a performance and a film that neatly exemplifies the oft quoted Nietzsche line “whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster.”
Elsewhere the cast is uniformly excellent even when the parts are relatively small. Mark Strong appears as a senior CIA figure and gets to deliver a great motivational speech along the lines of Alec Baldwin’s in Glengarry Glen Ross. Joel Edgerton is third billed, but does not appear until the final hour as the leader of the special forces team sent to take out Bin Laden. Jason Clarke (recently very good in Lawless) is excellent as the CIA’s torturer with a PhD. Actors as good as Stephen Dillane and Frank Grillo appear in tiny roles. There is also a slightly distracting appearance by John Barrowman of all people (prepare yourself for that one). However it is Chastain who carries the film in a part that elevates her to the new A-list.
Bigelow shows a complete mastery of filmmaking here. Despite the near three hour running time, the film moves at pace with the director racheting tension and suspense to almost unbearable levels without ever tipping into macho action film cliches. One checkpoint sequence created such a palpable feeling of dread it made me feel physically ill. Like Ron Howard’s Apollo 13, Zero Dark Thirty is a suspense thriller with an ending the entire audience already knows. Like Howard’s film it does not matter, because this the audience is in the hands of a masterful director, with a great cast and a brilliant screenplay. The dénouement is amongst the most white knuckle inducing thirty minutes of film I have ever seen. As choreographed as any ballet but also just as measured and disciplined. Where other action directors expend an excess of energy, Bigelow is all about control and restraint, a deadly sniper where other directors bluster like an artillery barrage to lesser effect.
With history so recent that the ink is still wet, making a fictionalised film is a tricky business. Unsurprisingly Zero Dark Thirty has generated controversy across the political spectrum. Some on the left object that simply by depicting it, the film is a justification for the use of torture. Some on the right have seen it as pro-Obama propaganda. As a lowly film blogger I don’t feel qualified to comment on the veracity of Zero Dark Thirty as a historical document, but the film felt completely convincing to me. Yes, the early sections depicts in graphic detail the torture of al-Qaeda contacts by the CIA. These scenes are difficult to watch, but I would refute claims they amount to an endorsement of torture. Without going into detail it is not clear that the interrogations result in information that is either critical to the discovery of Bin Laden, or unobtainable by other means. Furthermore the film has an almost fly-on-the-wall documentary feel, and the camera acts as an emotionless observer. There is very little ‘spin’ and the film is largely absent of flag-waving closure. Bigelow herself has described the film in interviews as a first draft of history and hopes that others will approach the story from different angles.
As an example of pure filmmaking technique, this is an essential watch but beyond that this is an important and vital film. Zero Dark Thirty should generate debate and argument, but is also (in this reviewers opinion) the most exciting film of 2012 and one of the few looking at "now" rather than "then".
EXTRAS ★★ Just four short behind-the-scenes featurettes: No Small Feat (3;51); The Compound (9:25); Geared Up (7:04); and Targeting Jessica Chastain (5:19).