Title: Zero Dark Thirty
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Major Players: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Jennifer Ehle
Out Of Five? 4
Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty arrives in this country with something of a reputation. Already with major awards under its belt, it’s in the running for both BAFTAs and Oscars but, significantly, not the Best Director Oscar. And now its content is the subject of controversy which, some commentators believe, could damage its chances of winning anything.
Its story is well-known, tracing the hunt for Osama Bin Laden following the attacks of September 11th. We see it through the eyes of Maya (Jessica Chastain), a comparatively new recruit to the CIA. She is single-minded to the point of obsessive in her pursuit of the target, partially because of the assassination of a colleague by a suicide bomber. After 10 years, her dedication pays off, when she and her team track down a compound in Pakistan that she is convinced is the hiding place of the most wanted man in the world. The powers that be take some convincing – and then the mission to either capture or kill him starts …………..
The film puts you on edge right from the very start. The opening credits are shown in total silence. You suspect a technical hitch. There isn’t one. But you’re unsettled and you stay that way for the next two and half hours. It’s probably just as well, as you’re launched into the sequence of graphic torture scenes that have put the film in the firing line. We see waterboarding more than once and it makes uncomfortable viewing – for us and for Maya. The difference is that she learns to get used to it – we don’t – and becomes involved in questioning detainees. But she never actually participates in physical torture.
It isn’t just these scenes that are difficult to watch: the entire film isn’t easy. And that’s not a criticism. It asks tough questions of its characters and audience, provoking mixed, conflicting responses. The final raid on the compound is a case in point. This was celebrated in the USA as something to be proud of, but the only element of celebration you see on the screen is among the soldiers who carried out the mission. And they are high on adrenaline. Maya goes through a whole range of emotions – relief, grief, regret and apprehension. After spending ten years of her life focussed on one thing and one thing only, she sees her future as uncertain.
This is powerful film making, with a tangible feeling of authenticity. The compound raid is especially impressive: we see it through the grainy green lenses of the viewers mounted on the soldiers’ headgear. And, even though you know the outcome, it’s still extremely tense. Chastain is very good in the lead: her Maya is ballsy, determined but, in more private moments, you see the toll her work takes on her.
In such an American film it’s surprising to see a couple of familiar British faces. CIA operative Jennifer Ehle about as far away as you can get from Jane Austen and Mark Strong is Maya’s boss. He and James Gandolfini as the CIA chief share a distracting problem. Dodgy syrups. We all know that the wig maker on Lincoln was instructed not to do a good job on Tommy Lee Jones’ hairpiece as his character had alopecia but I have a nagging feeling he was allowed some practice beforehand.
At just over two and half hours, the movie is a touch too long, especially given its demands on your concentration. When Maya scrawled on her boss’s window the number of days gone to waste since the discovery of Bin Laden’s hiding place, I rather knew how she felt.
Ultimately, Zero Dark Thirty a serious piece of film making – intelligent, challenging, detailed and thought-provoking. It’s one that you respect rather than like.
Zero Dark Thirty opens in cinemas nationwide this Friday, 25 January.