I originally wrote this review in a somewhat shaken state after a press screening just before Zero Dark Thirty’s UK release. The film had already become a lightning rod for political controversy in the US where it was subject to an orchestrated political campaign against it, a campaign that intensified as it emerged as an Oscar contender. Director Kathryn Bigelow was raked over the coals by film critics, some elements of Hollywood’s liberal vanguard, and politicians. The controversy even went so far as to drag in the White House with Republican critics claiming that the CIA and the US Defence Department had leaked classified information to the filmmakers. Curiously most of these claims evaporated into thin air post Academy Awards.
American cinema is currently engaged not in a War Against Terror, but in a war against ambiguity. Audiences are not being given credit for the intelligence to interpret information and narrative elements and then be able to make up their own minds. Equally certain cinema audiences seem to welcome being spooned simple, easily digestible stories of presenting simple binary oppositions of white hats and black hats. The world is rarely this simplistic.
Zero Dark Thirty takes the vast, significant and often obfuscated events of America’s ‘war on terror’ as its subject. It tries to show in forensic detail and with a dispassionate eye the CIA’s hunt for al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden following his apparent escape from Afghanistan into Pakistan in late 2001.
Journalist Mark Boal’s superb screenplay distils this into the story of a single invented character, a CIA analyst called Maya (Jessica Chastain). As Maya sifts through a vast pool of intelligence gathered in the wake of the events of September the Eleventh 2001, Boal and Bigelow fashion a gripping and suspenseful narrative. What starts as a hunt for a needle in a haystack, gradually narrows in focus towards a riveting climax as special forces close in on the compound where Maya believes her quarry is in hiding.
Following continued al-Qaeda backed acts of terrorism against military and civilian targets – including an attempt on her own life – Maya’s dedication to this hunt becomes a near fanatical obsession that could be said to consume her entire life, except we are given little to no evidence that any such life existed in the first place. We learn Maya was recruited whilst in High School. In an awkward exchange with the CIA’s director (the late James Gandolfini) in the Langley cafeteria, Maya is asked what she has done in her CIA career outside of the hunt for Bin Laden. Her brow furrows in confusion before her answer “nothing. I’ve done nothing else.”
Chastain is exceptional in the role, giving a fierce and intelligent performance playing a character who is very far from a conventional Hollywood hero. Maya is brusque, has no time for social pleasantries, and is seen to alienate colleagues and superiors alike. As the film progresses both her conviction and her rage increase. It isn’t overtly stated, but this is a performance and a film that neatly exemplifies the oft quoted Nietzsche line “whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster.”
Elsewhere the cast is uniformly excellent even when the parts are quite small. Mark Strong appears as a senior CIA figure and delivers a great motivational speech along the lines of Alec Baldwin’s A.B.C speech in Glengarry Glen Ross. Joel Edgerton is third billed, but does not appear until the final hour as the leader of the special forces team sent to take out Bin Laden. Jason Clarke (recently very good in Lawless) is excellent as the CIA’s torturer with a PhD. Actors as good as Chris Pratt, Stephen Dillane and Frank Grillo appear in small roles. There is also a slightly distracting appearance by John Barrowman of all people (prepare yourself for that one). However, it is Chastain who carries the film in a part that confirmed her A-list status.
Bigelow demonstrates her complete mastery of film making. Despite the near three hour running time, the film moves at a pace with the director ratcheting tension and suspense to almost unbearable levels without ever tipping into macho action film cliches. One checkpoint sequence created such a palpable feeling of dread it made me feel physically ill.
Like Ron Howard’s Apollo 13, Zero Dark Thirty is a suspense thriller with an ending foretold. Like Howard’s film it does not matter, because we are in the hands of a genius director, armed with a terrific cast and a brilliant screenplay. The dénouement is amongst the most white knuckle inducing thirty minutes of film I have seen. As choreographed as any ballet but also just as measured and disciplined. Where other action directors expend an excess of energy, Bigelow is all about control and restraint. She is a deadly sniper where other directors bluster like an artillery barrage to lesser effect.
One of the most persistent and damaging of the claims made against Zero Dark Thirty from both the left and the right, was that the film is a justification for the use of torture. This is a charge that felt to me then, and still is to me now, largely spurious. Yes, the early sections depict in graphic detail the torture of al-Qaeda contacts by the CIA. These scenes are difficult to watch, but I refute the claim that they amount to an endorsement of torture.
Without going into plot detail it is not certain that the interrogations result in information that is either critical to the discovery of Bin Laden, or unobtainable by other means. Furthermore, the film has an almost fly-on-the-wall documentary feel, and the camera acts as an emotionless observer. There is little ‘spin’ and the film is largely absent of flag-waving closure. Bigelow herself has described the film in interviews as a first draft of history and hopes that others will approach the story from different angles. At the same time, any constructed narrative is a form of propaganda, and to me it seems obvious where the filmmakers intentions lie, and it is most certainly not in endorsing torture, or celebrating the War on Terror in an uncomplicated fashion.
And any film that annoys both right and left is probably doing something right.
As an example of pure film making technique, this is an essential watch but furthermore it is in my opinion an important and vital film. Zero Dark Thirty has generated debate and argument, but is also one of the few perfect masterpieces of recent American cinema.
This is a revised version of a review originally published on screenjabber.com