Film Review: Zero Dark Thirty

Monday 14 July 2014 by

Zero Dark Thirty, Film, Kathryn Bigelow

It took 10 years for Osama bin Laden to be found. And it wasn’t in a cave in the mountains, it was – in effect – in a house in suburbia. What better way to explore the complexity of the hunt than make a film about it?

Okay, I’m being facetious – Zero Dark Thirty is not as trite as I make it out to be. In fact, it’s pretty good. The film is the story of the hunt, and eventual capture (and resulting death) of bin Laden, as told through the eyes of Maya (Jessica Chastain).

From the brutal coercion techniques used on prisoners, to the hundreds of days it took to track and confirm the final hiding place of the most wanted man on Earth, it reveals America’s fight to find him. This film has been criticised for glamorising torture (something I would disagree with, but I’ll get on to that), and it does fall in to the trap of AN AMERICAN HERO SAVES THE WORLD SINGLE-HANDEDLY. But Chastain is amazing, and the performances across the board are brilliant.

The torture scenes (some of the earliest in the film) are quite intense. They have been accused of overstating the value of the information got through torture. For me, I can’t quite comment on whether or not it’s an accurate portrayal, but I wouldn’t say it glamorises the techniques used. Rather, it portrays them in a more objective manner – cold, and without comment. They are hard to watch and it’s a relief when they move on.

Chastain plays the rich and complex character of Maya with ease, from the increasingly fierce and cold exterior, to the glimpses of vulnerability. Her single-minded campaign to find bin Laden builds up with the film, closing the loop with the final climax (and then following anti-climax). The whole film rests firmly on her shoulders, and I would say it is Chastain that is the strongest link throughout.

The cast around her is pretty brilliant too – Jason Clarke, Jennifer Ehle, Kyla Chandler, J.J Kandel – and they carry their characters with style. Kandel, in particular, really makes the final few scenes, ramping up the tension and evoking the confusion that must have been going on as they go through the house.

Is it an accurate portrayal? I guess we’ll never know. But is it entertaining? To a degree; I can see why it gained the critical acclaim that it did. Unfortunately, it does fall prey to the usual America-saves-the-day story. One American hero (in this case, Chastain) takes on the Big Bad Evil of the World and single-handedly rescues everyone. And that is one that I struggle with. It becomes boring in film after film, and this is a particularly heavy-handed use of it – after all, Maya isn’t the only American agent hunting for bin Laden, but that’s pretty much all we see.

If you like action films along the lines of Black Hawk Down, then I expect you’ll like this – lots of gung-ho, and witty dialogue and serious staring. In truth, I really do like films like this, and as films go, this one is pretty damned good. I rate Kathryn Bigelow as a director and she never fails to impress (Hurt Locker anyone?) and this is no different – no matter the tropes it falls in to – with a sharp script and cleverly constructed scenes. For a film about the capture-and-kill of bin Laden (which, let’s face it, could end up farcical), it’s tastefully done in the end, with the final scene capturing that elusive emotion of a job well done.

Between Bigelow’s directorship and Chastain’s powerful performance makes this a film worthy of its praise, but the final astounding blow is somewhat softened by the pitfalls that telling a true story will always suffer from.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *