From Kathryn Bigelow, director of Best Picture winner The Hurt Locker (which I wasn’t a fan of), comes Zero Dark Thirty, an ambitious dramatisation of the manhunt for Osama bin Laden. It’s a solid yarn, made more fascinating by its basis on real events and seeming faithfulness to the facts. Make no mistake however, this isn’t an action movie. Zero Dark Thirty is a procedural, a thriller with action at the end and a lot of talking and torture in between.
It’s also a long movie, clocking in at over two and a half hours. The first half is a slow burn, beginning with a minute or so of black screen and just sound recordings of 9/11 playing over the speakers. It’s a sombre opening meant to evoke an emotional reaction but it just felt a bit too heavy-handed and clunky as a starter. Those less affected by 9/11 might struggle to find a personal hook in the film as I did.
For a good portion I wasn’t invested in the characters and was generally on the verge of boredom. Yes, Jessica Chastain does a marvellous job bringing CIA agent Maya to life but the character’s obsessiveness results in a relatively unsympathetic lead. She’s so consumed with finding and killing bin Laden that it becomes a challenge to relate on a more intimate level, creating an empty emotional conduit. At one point Maya even says something eye-rollingly tacky to the effect of ‘I’m still alive and I’m meant to kill him’ – this isn’t Harry Potter where the Chosen One is destined to defeat the Dark Lord!
Another major character in the first half is Dan (Jason Clarke), an interrogator who spends a lot of his screen time torturing a captured terrorist. As a result Clarke too isn’t all that likeable. I also never bought him as an interrogator. Anytime he would yell at his prisoner all I heard was an actor yelling rather than a voice with authority. It’s a shame that most of the key anchors of the supporting cast, actors like Mark Strong, James Gandolfini and Joel Edgerton, don’t appear until the second half of the story.
But back onto the subject of torture – it’s almost exclusively riddled throughout the First Act. In fact, after the 9/11 soundscape intro, the film begins with a waterboarding sequence. Bigelow and writer Mark Boal don’t really take a stance on the whole ‘is torture justified?’ debate, they merely present it as a technique that’s used to garner information and don’t dwell on its ethical implications at all. That said, since the first half relies so much on torture I got the distinct feeling that I was supposed to be shocked or something similar.
No such thing – by presenting torture amorally the picture took on a cold, clinical feel that made it difficult to become invested in what was happening. A number of times I thought that the whole thing would have been so much more interesting if it was simply done as a documentary. On the other hand, maybe I’m just used to its depiction as a fan of TV series 24 – that show dealt heavily in torture and has taken the ethics debate through the blender and through again. In any case, I didn’t bat an eye and the use of torture as a crutch here just felt lazy rather than confronting, thought provoking or otherwise necessary.
Then the second half kicks into gear and Zero Dark Thirty finally attains the level of clarity and focus that I was hoping it would have had from the beginning. Instead of meandering around as characters follow and lose various leads, things start to come together and momentum builds towards a clear objective. Thankfully, Maya’s obsessiveness also becomes less obnoxious and more humorous. It all culminates it an effortless finale in which a team of US Navy SEALS raid bin Laden’s compound. This is masterful cinema, expertly paced, tense and meticulously directed. What’s great is that Bigelow avoids the gung-ho attitude of many war movies by presenting the raid as realistically as possible. I absolutely bought what was happening onscreen as something likely very similar to how it actually went down. That alone is well worth the price of admission.
Zero Dark Thirty recounts the hunt for Osama bin Laden. It’s too long and threatens boredom in its first half but once it kicks into gear this is some of the best stuff that modern cinema has to offer.