Film Review: Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

We already know the ending of this story; Osama Bin Laden was seized and killed by US Navy Seals in his hideout compound in Pakistan on May 2, 2011. The focus of Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty however, mostly surrounds the years of struggle and the many events that led to the eventual capture of Bin Laden.

A haunting opening sets the scene; phone calls from people trapped in the Twin Towers are played over a dark screen. It is clear which side of the story we are hearing. CIA agent Maya (Jessica Chastain) has been following the Bin Laden case from the beginning. Newly reassigned to an embassy base in Pakistan in 2003, Maya witnesses acts of torture in an attempt to gain intelligence. After years of few developments and more attacks, a pathway opens up that leads to the ultimate discovery of Bin Laden’s hiding.

Maya is not the hard bodied female that we are more commonly familiar with in these types of films. She does not transform into a muscled officer and throw away the “vulnerabilities” of her female identity. In fact, masculinity and femininity are rarely positioned as discussable issues. Middle Eastern religion sees Maya donning the appropriate clothes when going out in public, but at no other point does her gender come into question, nor is it a factor she must battle against to be noticed and heard. There are battles to be fought against superiors and against terrorism itself, but none of that relates to Maya’s female identity.

For the most part, Maya is tough and emotionless. A friendly relationship develops with a female co-worker Jessica (played by the terrific Jennifer Ehle). The relationship is initially reminiscent of the Jamie Lee CurtisElizabeth Pena relationship in Bigelow’s 1989 film Blue Steel. Unlike Jamie Lee’s Megan Turner, Maya does not seek a form of justice through a physical and mental transformation that bring notions of femininity into question.

Jessica Chastain is a revelation and gives the strongest performance of her already illustrious career. No moment is over dramatised or over sentimentalised, and when the stunning conclusion is reached, Maya’s cathartic final moments are felt with sincerity and a shared sigh of relief.

zero dark thirty poster

While The Hurt Locker focused on the complicated internal boredom of soldiers deployed in Afghanistan, Zero Dark Thirty‘s characters have a clear mission. War is less of a theme with the manhunt taking centre stage. Terrorism, surveillance and political bureaucracy all come into play, particularly with some controversial waterboarding scenes that have stirred the proverbial pot in Washington.

Kathryn Bigelow’s directorial work once again notes a career high point. Bigelow’s perfectly paced tension is so engulfing that it keeps the viewers breath is a constant struggle. Stillness is often disrupted loudly and unexpectedly, allowing Bigelow to catch her audience frequently off-guard. The final hunt down sequence has a strong element of game play, whereby the audience is placed alongside the Navy Seals who are completing increasingly complicated levels that lead to the ultimate target.

Former journalist Mark Boal’s script, which undoubtedly takes some creative liberties over particular events, is deeply engaging. Interestingly, Boal and Bigelow’s idea began as how the world’s most wanted man had escaped capture until one fateful day changed their story. Gathering intelligence from several sources, Boal’s journalistic credentials are pointedly clear and outstandingly compelling.

Where Zero Dark Thirty exactly sits politically is a slightly hazy issue. The film shows the CIA using torture techniques to gain valuable intelligence, but administrative clerical work uncovers a major development. The Obama administration is represented as sternly against torture, but some CIA agents see this as a threat to attaining intelligence.

At 157 minutes, no scene feels is over developed, overemphasised or played out too long. Zero Dark Thirty is a piece of cinematic genius and perhaps one of the best films to come out of the United States in years. 

Zero Dark Thirty is in Australian cinemas from Thursday 31 January through Icon Films.

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5 blergs

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