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Film Review - Zero Dark Thirty

Kathryn Bigelow's story about the hunt for Osama bin Laden.
Kathryn Bigelow's film Zero Dark Thirty
Posted February 1, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty is the chronicle of the decade-long hunt for al-Qaeda terrorist leader Osama bin Laden after the September 2001 attacks, and his death at the hands of the US Navy SEALs in May 2011.

Directed and produced by Oscar winner Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker), the film starts with a harrowing, audio-only recreation of September 11, 2001 using phone calls from inside the burning World Trade Centre on that fateful morning.

From this stark opening, the film follows CIA operative Maya (Jessica Chastain) as the quest for bin Laden begins.  The many years of the manhunt, in which she ultimately makes the crucial breakthrough, are all-consuming for her.

The film becomes a series of facts that build upon one another; leads found by Maya, chances lost to passing time, sources unconvinced by interrogation, friends lost to bombings, which, as a whole, build a saga that spans nearly a decade.  The film stages itself as a truthful retelling of the heart of the mission to find and kill Osama Bin Laden and does so, with little embellishment or digression.

Maya is joined by colleagues like the tormented CIA torturer Dan, the officious station chief Joseph Bradley Chandler, and the lively agent Jessica, but mostly, she stands alone, huddled in front of a computer screen, surrounded by her secret files. 

We don’t see any politicians talking about what to do with the intelligence gathered by Maya and her colleagues, but we get a sense of the tangle of information gleaned from interrogations and surveillance.

It all makes for a story that constantly simmers but threatens never to come to the boil.  The film’s cinematography and attention to detail really builds the tension, and also shows the often unglamorous nature of intelligence work; it’s doubtful if any film has conveyed the grinding routine of spying as strongly as this one.

Chastain’s portrayal of Maya (based on a real-life CIA analyst known only as Jen), has rightly gathered high praise and an Oscar nomination. Chastain has a quiet fury about her, like a gathering storm on the horizon as her haunted, intense presence makes a human space in a movie full of shadowy, unnamed people. Maya does not come across as a dyed-in-the-wool patriot operating with religious like fervour, just someone so immersed in her job that, she has nothing else.

The opening act of Zero Dark Thirty is very challenging, with stark re-enactments of the torture used in the questioning of suspected al-Qaida operatives following 9/11.  The repugnant practices of water-boarding, extreme sleep deprivation and denial of basic human rights will be upsetting for many viewers. Despite allegations of a pro-torture stance, the acts are not explicitly endorsed nor condemned. The judgment call is up to the viewer.

In contrast, is the climax, which frankly, is electrifying. The US Navy SEALs raid to get bin Laden happens in almost real-time over 40 minutes in a carefully reconstructed replica of the actual Abbottabad compound that bin Laden lived in. Enhanced by Greig Fraser's outstanding hand-held camerawork, we watch the action as the SEALs do, through the eerie greenish haze of night-vision glasses. Though we all know the outcome, the suspense is nerve-shattering and is one of the most intense endings to a film in recent years.

This is a long film, and it would be improved by removing some of the middle chapters. However, Bigelow is a master at pacing a film and building suspense and Zero Dark Thirty‘s telling of ‘the greatest manhunt in history’ would not be half the film it is without her. It might even surpass The Hurt Locker.

Review by Martin Barratt

Zero Dark Thirty
Kathryn Bigelow
Genre: Drama/thriller
Rating: M (Violence & offensive language)
Duration: 2 hours 37 mins