Zero Dark Thirty is intelligent, intense and gripping, while Jessica Chastain brings us a subtle and stubbornly smart performance
So Hollywood were pretty quick to turn Bin Laden's death into a film right? Point Break director Kathryn Bigelow brings an equally as superb follow up to her 2009 Oscar winning and immensely successful war epic, The Hurt Locker. The Hurt Locker not only won Best Picture at the Academy Awards in 2009 but also Best Director for Bigelow, it was always going to be a tough act to follow, but with Zero Dark Thirty Bigelow has created a breathlessly entertaining and suspenseful thriller.
While we all know where this story starts, with 9/11 and George Bush's war on terror, and where it ends, with the Obama administration's sanctioning of the killing of al-Queda leader Osama Bin Laden, most of us have no clue what happened in between. That's where Zero Dark Thirty comes in, focusing on the time between 2001 and 2011, and how the US Government eventually discovered and killed Bin Laden.
Originally, Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal had written a film about the unsuccessful search for Bin Laden, mostly focusing around the Battle of Tora Bora in 2001, yet as they were about to begin filming, the news of Bin Ladens death broke. Bigelow shelved the original project and instead re wrote a script from scratch about the successful hunt for the al-Queda leader. Yet the film hasn't come without its controversy, with critics claiming the apparent graphic scenes of torture legitimise the act and portray it as a necessary evil. Although this hasn't stopped it garnering five Oscar nominations and universal acclaim. The film stars Lawless and The Help actress Jessica Chastain in the starring role as CIA operative Maya. It also stars Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Jessica Ehle, Joel Edgerton, and Mark Strong all in supporting roles.
The film begins with the 2001 al-Queda attacks on the World Trade Centre, and swiftly through to 2003 and the US Embassy in Pakistan. Maya (Chastain) is a young CIA operative who has recently been transfered to the Middle East in hopes of gaining new intelligence on Bin Laden. She is partnered in her work by fellow officer Dan (Jason Clarke), who with more experience under his belt, isn't as merciful or flinching in one of the first scenes where he interrogates and tortures a suspected al-Queda courier. The suspected terrorist is eventually tricked into giving away information on a senior al-Queda communications courier, Abu Ahmed. In the continuing investigation, Maya's experience as a CIA operative grows, and she becomes an important agent in working towards bringing Bin Laden down. She almost becomes obsessed in finding more information on Abu Ahmed, knowing his importance in the terror group. Yet she needs new information to convince others, specifically Joseph Bradley (Kyle Chandler), her supervisor, that Ahmed could lead them to Bin Laden.
Over the next 5 years, leads dry up and the investigation slows as it is believed Abu Ahmed is dead after a detainee claims he buried him back in 2001. The film shows some key political events, including the 7/7 London bombings as well as the 2008 Presidential election. However, as Maya becomes more prominent in the agency she is targeted, she survives the Islamabad Marriott Hotel bombing and a shooting at her car. However after a mistake involving misplaced files, it is believed Abu Ahmed is very much alive, and using the name Ibrahim Sayeed.
The investigation into this apparent mystery senior courier livens up again as Maya and others gain key contact details to trace him and listen in to calls in order to see if he can unknowingly lead them to the very top of the al-Queda pyramid. Eventually, with CIA supervisors on side, Maya is able to track Ibrahim Sayeed to a heavily fortified compound in Abbottabad. A US Navy Seal team raids the compound, killing who is believed to be Bin Laden on the top floor.
Kathryn Bigelow has managed to find the perfect medium between statistical documentary and over the top dramatisation in bringing the decade long man hunt of Bin Laden to the screen. It is a thrilling piece of cinema, intelligently written, brilliantly paced, and stylishly pulled off. Yet the movie is also so superbly personal, to focus on the stubborn yet fierce character of Maya during the whole operation is a touch of brilliance, not just because Chastain plays her so perfectly, but because it gives the audience such an intimate, ground level view of the whole hunt. It is refreshing to see a smart, well written female protagonist in a Hollywood film today, especially a character whose profession is so male orientated. To create a film, in which everyone knows the end is an uphill task in itself, the film's major point is the revealing of the facts and events which led to the death of Bin Laden, and each scene, each act, is fascinating. Even the final scene, in which we all know the outcome, is brilliantly done, you're on the edge of your seat as suspense hangs over the whole operation. To create that within the audience with such a well known story is brilliant, Bigelow pulls it off.
Bigelow also doesn't shy in wanting to give you the true story, torture scenes and all. In my opinion, Zero Dark Thirty does to an extent legitimise torture, in fact it almost normalises it, showing you a smart young woman who eventually succumbs to doing it herself. The film portrays it as a necessary evil, but I don't think Bigelow meant this. She is just showing us the facts, she isn't telling us torture is right, or wrong for that matter. In fact, in the film they barely get much information from interrogating and torturing, Bigelow is merely showing the events leading to the finale, she does not endorse it. Anyone with a political opinion is going to attempt to use Zero Dark Thirty to their advantage, whether saying it endorses torture, or endorsers the war, or opposes both of these, yet Bigelow is surprisingly ambiguous in any opinion of the war, and the film is surely better for that.
Jessica Chastain's performance is worth the admission alone. Her portrayal of Maya as a work obsessed yet confident and strongly determined individual is electric. Her almost arrogance around senior male CIA bosses shows her truly fierce nature yet also a funny side, particularly in one meeting scene in which discussions are taking place over the Abbottabad fortress. "I'm the motherfucker that found this place, sir", Maya replied when asked who she is. Chastain's performance exudes obsession and steadfastness yet there's also a deep emotionality to the character. The film's final scene is the most poignant, as Maya board her plane home, she cries, wondering what happens next? Her whole life has focused on this one operation, what now? It's an incredible bit of acting by Chastain, and such is her independent nature and single-mindedness that she is often reminiscent of Julia Roberts (and no it's not just the ginger hair). Chastain's performance is what keeps the audience engaged and grounded while it gives the film its strong personal aspect. I suspect she will have more gongs to add to her Golden Globe for Best Actress come the end of February.
The film's heavy focus on Maya means supporting roles really do take a back seat here, but there are some other note worthy performances. Jason Clarke gives us a brilliant portrayal of Maya's early partner, Dan. He is able to show the brutal side of him as he tortures detainees while also able to quickly change to the casual humorous side of his personality, showing how wide spread and accepted torture has become. However you see it eventually takes it toll on him, and while he does not have enough screen time to sparkle, the Public Enemies actor provides refreshing comic relief. As well as Clarke, Kyle Chandler is great as the berated Joseph Bradley while Jessica Ehle is particularly engaging in the Camp Chapman bombings scene, as she naively lets her guard down in her desperate attempt for Bin Laden intelligence.
Political opinions and endorsements aside, Kathryn Bigelow has created a fine film. It's a superb follow up to The Hurt Locker and although it will not get her another Best Director Oscar (she was not nominated), it will still surely win a number of prestigious prizes. Jessica Chastain is refreshing and fierce in the lead role, in what is an acting masterclass from the 35 year old. Zero Dark Thirty is a thrilling, suspenseful and ultimately intimate political drama, i'd see it for Chastain alone! 4/5