Zero Dark Thirty (2012) Directed by Kathryn Bigelow. With Jessica Chastain, Joel Edgerton and Jason Clarke.
The writer-director team of Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal re-team for Zero Dark Thirty, the chronicle of the manhunt for al-Qaeda founder, Osama Bin Laden. In a sense, it feels like a natural follow-up to Bigelow’s bomb-disposal thriller, The Hurt Locker, as it shares the same sense of chaotic unease; working as both a documentation of the time and a taught, no-frills thriller with an intense central performance.
We begin in the most harrowing way possible, by playing actual distress calls from victims trapped inside the World Trade Centre towers on September 11th 2001. These haunting cries penetrate deeply, in whatever context you might hear them and indeed, they instantly snap your mind back to the horror of that day. What then follows is a lot of talk, globe-trotting and torture. Zero Dark Thirty is not what you could call light entertainment.
In the role of lead investigator, Jessica Chastain is excellent. Her character, while clearly underestimated, is the toughest and most determined of all and it’s through her that the film breathes its humanity. Her fight is on two fronts. Not only is she fighting obstacles while trying to locate the most wanted man on the planet – she also struggles to convince her own superiors in the homeland of her own sound judgement.
For any film covering ten-years worth of timeline over the course of two-and-a-half hours, there lies an inherent challenge of making a through-line narrative without skimming over or getting bogged down in significant events along the way. Much of the success of Bigelow’s handling of the film is in her ability to pick out the things that resonate and build her drama around them. It takes a special talent and Bigelow never takes her eye off the bigger picture. Her film, which is split into chapters, successfully builds towards its inevitable climax and wisely refrains from any flag-waving sentimentalism, preferring to showcase a more gritty and earnest depiction of the unfolding events.
Thanks to what has come before, the final chapter is suitably the most tense and gripping. Assuming plot-spoilers are redundant, and even knowing the outcome of the military operation – Bigelow brilliantly stages the night-time action in a way that never gratifies the bloodthirsty, opting for a more realistic and measured approach.
In summary, Zero Dark Thirty is a triumph thanks to Bigelow’s discipline and Chastain’s central performance. What’s more, Bigelow’s intelligence as a film-maker ensures we’re given a sad and sorrowful film that in lesser hands, could have easily wound up a patriotic revenge thriller. A testing and tough experience, but a worthy one. 4.5/5