Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Joel Edgerton, Mark Strong
24 January 2013
NC16: COARSE LANGUAGE AND VIOLENCE
What happens after the most wanted man in the world is killed? Apparently, there’s still a lot of “wanting” to go around. The public wants details, answers – the world was instantly clamouring for the top-secret truth behind the military operation that resulted in the death of Osama bin Laden. Anonymous sources came forward with their stories, and naturally books and movies would follow. Director Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal, both Oscar-winners for their previous effort The Hurt Locker, seem ideal candidates to put the story to film.
Zero Dark Thirty centres on the woman behind the manhunt: a young CIA officer named Maya (Chastain), who has dedicated her entire life to hunting Osama. The film opens with Maya accompanying fellow officer Dan (Clarke) to a CIA black site where a detainee is being held. Maya bears witness to the torture and humiliation Dan carries out. It doesn’t get any easier from there as Maya spends the next eight years buried in her quest to track down Osama as she survives brutal attacks and chases down leads, eventually leading to the raid on the compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan by SEAL Team 6.
Considering the subject matter at hand, it was inevitable that Zero Dark Thirty would attract its fair share of controversy even before the cameras started rolling. Everything from classified information allegedly being made available to the filmmakers to the movie’s stance on torture was called into question. While this reviewer can’t vouch for how closely the film hews to actual events – nor can many others, really – he can say that the film seems to be an honest and earnest portrayal. It’s noticeably devoid of Michael Bay-esque rah-rah, flag-waving, chest-thumping patriotism, and is a thoughtful portrait of men and women simply doing their jobs.
Chastain is convincing in her subdued turn as a career woman whose job is more dangerous and has more at stake than most. Maya is a woman who, in Chastain’s own words, is “trained to be unemotional and analytically precise” – and yet, we don’t get a flat, uninteresting robot. Bigelow is subtle enough not to thrust a “girl power” agenda in our faces – as the first woman to take home a Best Director Oscar, she well could have. There are the expected moments where it’s made clear that Maya is “a woman in a man’s world”, but these don’t stray into cliché and it is to Chastain’s credit that we believe that yes, this person could have spearheaded the biggest manhunt in history.
While Zero Dark Thirty doesn’t feel as much like a documentary as The Hurt Locker did, it carries over that film’s sparse, no-frills style. “Zero Dark Thirty” is a military term meaning “thirty minutes after midnight”, in reference to the secrecy surrounding the decade-long manhunt. Bigelow does a a good job in convincing the audience that condensed though the lead-up to Osama’s death may be, it probably did happen in a similar fashion, and the result is anything but sensationalistic. This can be chalked up as much to the lack of visual and stylistic embellishment as it can be to research. However, this is something of a double-edged sword as in spite of the gripping proceedings, the film sometimes drags its feet and audiences may be twiddling their thumbs, impatiently anticipating the SEAL Team raid.
The raid only actually happens during the last thirty minutes of the film, but thankfully, it doesn’t disappoint. It’s a nail-biter of an action sequence even though we all know the ending and it isn’t slickly-staged or artfully choreographed – but that’s exactly how it should be. Between the shaky-cam and the sickly green of the night-vision lenses, there’s a sense of uneasiness and urgency inherent in the scene, which is heightened by some good acting on the part of Edgerton, Chris Pratt and the other actors portraying the SEALs.
All that said though, is it enough of a payoff after nearly two hours of heavy dialogue and sometimes-unsettling depictions of torture? Just about. Zero Dark Thirty certainly could have had a chunk trimmed off its running time and been pumped with more adrenaline, but that would most likely be at the cost of the solemnity and gravity required to tell the story it does.
SUMMARY: Though sometimes a little heavy-handed and weary, Zero Dark Thirty always feels credible, realistic and thoughtful in its account of the manhunt for Osama bin Laden.