After their Best Picture-winning collaboration on The Hurt Locker, director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal – who each won respective Academy honours also – have returned to document the interceding period between two of the most politically relevant events of our time – 9/11 and the 2011 assassination of Osama Bin Laden. The result is a lengthy, muscular, ultimately thrilling drama that sits atop the pantheon of 9/11 cinema, though audiences expecting more of Bigelow’s last film had best take heed that this is a very different beast.
The first things we hear in Zero Dark Thirty are the recordings of 9/11 victims making phone calls to their families and the emergency services, tastefully overlaid with nothing but a black screen. It provides a simple, no-frills context to what we’re about to see – as if we really need it – before Bigelow cuts to a man being brutally interrogated by one of the CIA’s seasoned ask-men, Dan (Jason Clarke). This scene, which begins with water-boarding and proceeds to more debasing forms of torture, asserts two things; this is going to be a film that pulls no punches, and for the most part, like The Hurt Locker, it’s apolitical. Bigelow is merely trying to tell the story how it went down, and there’s only one moment that really serves to pick our brain about the applications of torture, when we observe a TV on which President Obama claims that he doesn’t condone torture, which is met with an uncomfortable silence by everyone in the room. It’s an awkward breath, a question that remains unanswered – is torture justifiable when it gets results? That’s as far politicised as this film gets.
Otherwise, Zero Dark Thirty is as clinical and journalistic as one should expect from the duo of Bigelow and Boal. It is a film of three parts, beginning by establishing the target needed to track Bin Laden down – a courier from his inner circle – then proceeding to track this target, and finally the much-hyped “pay-off”, in which two teams of Navy SEALs assault Bin Laden’s compound and eliminate him. Also, numerous relevant events – such as the 7/7 attacks in London – are briefly explored to provide added context. In striving as far for authenticity as it does, the film does suffer slightly intrigue-wise; characters rattle through techno-babble at meetings like machine-guns, and it’s really down to the viewer to try and keep up, though audiences should largely be glad for the work-out.
Also, by depicting the laboriousness and frustration of the operation’s stilted progress with what appears to be an exacting level of authenticity, viewers might feel that the film traces along the same line a number of times. Sure, it’s a challenging approach that won’t appeal to all viewers, but for those prepared to buy into the minutiae of the particulars, it feels pressingly true to life, and helps to mould the piece, right up to its thrilling climax. It’s 157-minutes long, and certainly feels that long, but it’s unwaveringly worth the sit.
All points lead to the inevitable assault sequence on Bin Laden’s Pakistani compound that took place on May 2nd, 2011, a technically astonishing piece of film-making, beginning with swooping helicopters making a dramatic landing, leading to the night-vision sweep that takes up the raid’s bulk, and then the frantic exfiltration. It’s white-knuckle all the way – an unexpected feat given how well-known the outcome is – but at the same time tasteful, a depiction of extremely professional killers performing an ultra-challenging task with brutal expertise. Bigelow does well not to linger on Bin Laden’s bloody countenance long, nor do her characters enthusiastically wave flags. At the end of the day, what it comes down to is a tearful face sitting alone in a plane, reflecting the catharsis that many felt when the news of Bin Laden’s demise broke.
That tearful face belongs to Maya (Jessica Chastain), the CIA operative referred to in real-life as “Jen” whose hunch about Bin Laden’s whereabouts turned out to be correct. The first time we see Maya, she’s wearing a balaclava and is standing in on Dan’s interrogation, a sight that defines her role entire; she’s a woman in what’s perceived as a “man’s world”, with even the respectful Dan asking if she wants to watch the interrogation from the monitors. Maya begins the story as determined but green, slowly evolving throughout to become a more fiercely-spirited aspect of the operation, and by film’s end, is entirely commanding as she provides her own formal identification of Bin Laden’s corpse.
Though it would be hard to characterise Maya as having an arc or a journey throughout Zero Dark Thirty, that’s because the role doesn’t really call for it; despite running long, the film is a muscular piece not at all interested in fabricating character inflexions for more casual audiences. Though it’s frustrating that we never find much out about Maya at all beyond a desktop wallpaper that you’ll need an eagle-eye to spot, it really appears that the mission is, in fact, her life; if that’s true to the facts, then it’s difficult to argue with.
Chastain delivers a perfectly understated lead performance that only furthers her stature as one of cinema’s finest up-and-comers, though the pared-down treatment of her character is bound to leave some viewers – and indeed, awards voters – a little cold. Perhaps this is all because Chastain is really just a cog in a large wheel, and she’s matched by one of the finest ensemble casts of recent years; the meatiest parts undeniably go to Clarke, Mark Strong (as Maya’s blood-thirsty CIA superior), Jennifer Ehle (a CIA colleague) and Kyle Chandler (a head CIA operative), but there are also surprisingly brief yet punchy turns from James Gandolfini (as Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta), Harold Perrineau (a CIA officer) and both Joel Edgerton and Édgar Ramírez as members of the Navy SEALs. In unexpected, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameos, Mark Duplass appears rather strangely as a member of the CIA’s Predator Drone Bay, and Frank Grillo gets barely 10 seconds of screen-time as a Navy SEAL.
Whether it’s the gravitational pull of the procedural narrative so beautifully directed by Bigelow, Greig Fraser’s entrancing cinematography, Alexandre Desplat’s moody yet understated score, or the smattering of all the fine performers together, Zero Dark Thirty mounts up to become a Goliath of 9/11 film-making, and one that rather aptly will test viewers almost as much as it informs and even entertains them. This is a long, challenging film that’s also thoroughly gripping, and largely due to its virtuoso climactic sequence, quite the bravura feat of film-making indeed.
Zero Dark Thirty is released in the US on December 19th and in the UK on January 25th, 2013
We are currently seeking Film contributors on WhatCulture. To find out more about the perks of being a Film contributor, click here.