Zero Dark Thirty Review

157 minutes long, and not a single one of them wasted.

by Casimir Harlow
Movies & TV Review


Zero Dark Thirty Review

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With its intense, seminal storytelling, Zero Dark Thirty is one of the greatest detective stories ever told - the greatest police procedural ever crafted - and, although it happily blurs the line between fact and fiction, it may well be the most exciting pseudo-documentary-drama we've ever seen.

157 minutes long, and not a single one of them wasted.

Charting the decade-long manhunt for Osama bin Laden, the story follows one particularly determined CIA officer who dedicates her entire career to studying and tracking the al-Queda leader. As political temperaments shift, tactics change from torture and interrogation, to bribery and surveillance, but she never loses focus - despite the dwindling faith of both her superiors and her own team, and in spite of the fact that an assassination order is put out on her. This was the woman who found Osama bin Laden.

Ironically, whilst we already knew the ending to this particular tale, that wasn't always the case for the filmmakers involved in the project. Director Kathryn Bigelow and Writer Mark Boal had already found massive success with their 2009 collaboration, The Hurt Locker, and they decided to make a film about the hunt for Osama bin Laden immediately afterwards. The screenplay was finished and they were about to start shooting when the news broke that the terrorist leader had been killed. Bigelow, Boal and her entire filmmaking crew had to shelve the project and re-focus the entire film with a very different narrative and certainly a new ending in sight.

Thankfully all good things come to those who wait, and – using the same contacts that helped forge their original “Hunt for bin Laden” project – Bigelow et al. were able to put together a masterful historic reconstruction of the events that led up to the assassination of this terrorist leader. Sure, there are a lot of liberties taken with this particular effort – the US Government would appreciate it if you swallowed their statement about never condoning torture; if you can buy that – and there’s a certain inherent controversy to some of the stances that are taken, but the end result is still pretty damn close to perfect: a perfectly engineered police procedural.

The story of history’s greatest manhunt for the world’s most dangerous man.

It sounds like an understatement – or even a criticism – but that’s exactly what Zero Dark Thirty is: a procedural. It starts with a black screen and the sounds of horror as the events of 9/11 take place. The crime. Then we are introduced to the lead character: a CIA agent known simply as Maya, who is gathering intelligence sourced from a number of tortured detainees. There are a lot of leads and a lot of dead ends, but there’s only one target. As Maya painstakingly works her leads and plies her sources, it seems as if everything is amassing to prevent her from getting to her target – her superiors doubt her reasoning and their superiors are having second thoughts about the torture tactics being employed; her leads are getting all the more treacherous to explore, with traps laid and both bombs and hit squads waiting to take out her and her team – it’s all exactly what you would expect from a crime procedural, only expanded over a near-three-hour runtime, and given credibility by its loose basis in real-life events.

Bigelow splits her tale into distinct sections, each with chapter titles, and they only further assist the clinical, expert storytelling. She really has grown into a startlingly impressive director. She opened with a breathtaking trilogy of impressive features – the atypical vampire thriller Near Dark, the unusual police thriller Blue Steel and the seminal action-adventure Point Break – but her marriage to the more prominent director James Cameron arguably overshadowed her filmmaking success, and her before-its-time sci-fi thriller Strange Days proved to be a Box Office disaster, despite the fact that it has only grown in popularity since. K-19: The Widowmaker did not help – another Box Office bomb which only further damaged her career – and it was not until 2009’s The Hurt Locker that people truly sat up and took notice of what this master filmmaker had to offer.

Ironically, despite the fact that I love some of her early features – not least Point Break and Strange Days – they were clearly exceptional movies, whereas her comeback has been precipitated by two proper films; stunning ones to boot. Her directorial style has changed dramatically too, evolving into a much more gritty documentary style which prefers realism over flash visuals, despite the fact that she still clearly has a strong handle over action set-pieces.

Zero Dark Thirty is Bigelow at the absolute top of her game; three decades of experience working in such a male-dominated industry culminating in an astounding piece of expert filmmaking; one of the best films of 2012 (or 2013 if you accept its UK release date). Whilst The Hurt Locker may have earned her Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director, Zero Dark Thirty is arguably an even more accomplished feature.

Bringing depth, drama and character to a tale of bomb-disposal experts was certainly impressive – but maintaining high-wire tension throughout was perhaps only to be expected given the subject-matter. With the hunt for Osama bin Laden, however, the notion of maintaining tension is much harder to achieve – after all, we all know the ending. And yet Bigelow manages to keep you on edge throughout, with little-to-no action over the entire near-three-hour proceedings. Indeed the final assault (from which almost all of the shots for the misleading action-trailer have been taken) is just the icing on a very rich and rewarding cake; what comes before it is built so wondrously on investigative tension alone.

Of course viewers need a guide for their pseudo-historical journey – a protagonist who can help get across the strength and determination required to bring this particular decade-long case to a close. In that respect Jessica Chastain was perfectly chosen. This young actress has rocketed to stardom in the last few years, with a series of impressive performances in diverse features: the ethereal wife in Malick’s seminal Tree of Life; the outspoken outcast in The Help; the tough local cop in Texas Killing Fields; and the stunning out-of-towner in Lawless (where her scenes opposite the always-great Tom Hardy were amidst the best in the entire film).

Her first high-profile lead role, Chastain bears the burden of the entire dramatic weight of Zero Dark Thirty on her shoulders, and delivers in spades. Providing an emotionally intense, electrically charged performance, her character grows from quiet and reserved to impassioned and outspoken in a heartbeat, and it’s through her ultimate sacrifice that we see a very human angle to this particular manhunt. Based on a real-life CIA character whose identity remains a secret (reportedly the same CIA expert who was used as the basis for Claire Danes’s character in the powerful TV series, Homeland), we get to see just what dedication it took to stay on this trail; whilst colleagues fall by the wayside – taken out of the equation through politics, assassination, or just because they’ve had enough – she remains strong and true to her cause.

It’s so powerful that you wonder whether they needed to cross the religious/destiny border into unnecessarily clichéd territory – her line, “I believe I was spared so that I could finish the job” coming across as beyond the remit of this particular docu-drama. Yet it’s a minor quibble in what is otherwise a brilliant portrayal; made real in every look, every glimpse at her tired, bloodshot eyes; every bulging vein when she struggles to get her point across.

Supporting her we get a superb array of strong talent. Although Joel Edgerton was originally cast in the role (and would later take up a far less significant glorified tail-end cameo), Jason Clarke does a fantastic job as one of the other black ops CIA agents heavily involved in the early stages of the torture program. Clarke was excellent in an almost dialogue-less role in Lawless, and had previously worked with Chastain in not only that but also Texas Killing Fields, but he truly stands out here, bringing a strangely human, relatable quality to a man whose day-job is essentially water-boarding and other extreme forms of torture.

Mark Strong (Tinker Tailor, Body of Lies, The Guard), Jennifer Ehle (The King’s Speech, Contagion, The Ides of March), Kyle Chandler (Argo, The Kingdom, Super 8), Edgar Ramirez (Carlos, Wrath of the Titans, Vantage Point), Harold Perrineau (Lost, 28 Weeks Later), and even James Galdofini (Killing Them Softly, Get Shorty, Sopranos) all excel in their supporting roles, and Joel Edgerton (Warrior, Star Wars Prequels, The Thing 2011) tries his best in his fairly insignificant part as the leader of the Navy SEAL team, but it’s Clarke who is noteworthy amidst the supporting players, and it’s Chastain who stands out above all of them – it’s her who forms the backbone of the entire feature and carries you through it from start to end.

Regarding the controversies over torture, and the movie’s depiction of water-boarding as an element used in the hunt for bin Laden, I think that it’s only expected that any feature film which depicts water-boarding will come under scrutiny. Of course it’s the fact that this film purports to be based on actual events that causes added difficulty – after all, the US administration themselves deny (or are in denial, depending on how you look at it) any such torture tactics, so the depiction of such methods ostensibly conflicts the true-to-life nature of the piece.

Honestly, though, Bigelow and Boal aren’t taking a stance on torture – they’re just showing it as being an option available at a certain point in history. The public wanted answers; the Government was desperate to catch bin Laden, whatever the cost, and nobody was really bothered about what it took to bring in results. That’s the way it’s shown here. But what’s also evident is that the confessions weren’t always accurate or reliable; that the closing of the torture program was not the end of the investigation; and that alternative means (like bribery and surveillance) all equally contributed towards the end results. Indeed the only real controversy appears to stem from the fact that Zero Dark Thirty seems to accept that torture was used in the early stages for the hunt for bin Laden, whereas the US Government would seek to have you believe otherwise.

Even those critics who appears to be conflicted over this one aspect are still almost unanimous over their praise for the rest of the film, however, which is certainly a stunning piece of filmmaking. Fact or fiction, really it does not matter – even if the credit given to Chastain’s mysterious nameless CIA agent is blown out of proportion; even if the details of the investigation are blurred, obscured and often dramatised for effect; and even if the end result was always going to be a story which was basically about Government-sanctioned political assassination on a grand scale, this is still a superb piece of storytelling, direction, and performance.

Whether or not the real-life 2011 news that bin Laden had been killed had any great impact on you, this film manages to bring significance to it as part of the narrative – you genuinely feel that it is the culmination of a decade-long investigation which all started with the horrors of 9/11; and in this regard, you sympathise for the agent who can finally breathe again now that she has reached her goal, even if she has sacrificed everything to get there.

Where Zero Dark Thirty could have easily ended up as little more than another overtly patriotic, jingoistic piece of red-white-and-blue filmmaking, exalting political assassination and inhuman torture in an ignorant the-ends-justify-the-means fashion, Bigelow reins in her streamlined feature to give us events without commentary; an almost diary-like charting of the protracted investigatory process, warts and all, with little-to-know wrapped-in-the-flag sentiment to it.

There have been some understandable comparisons to 2012’s superb Ben Affleck drama – also based on real events – Argo, although Bigelow here avoids any kind of satirical humour and sticks to its guns when it comes to the gravity of the situation, without overplaying the serious sentiment. This is a dirty game that these players are involved in; it’s not a beautiful glory that they are all heading towards – it’s a murky world of death-dealing and violent retribution which leaves individuals mentally and physically scarred at best.

However factual it may or may not be, Zero Dark Thirty tells it how it is; delivering a no-frills account of this high profile manhunt and standing out as one of the best features of the year thus far.

Not to be missed.



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