Kathryn Bigelow has done it again. After the major success of Hurt Locker in 2008, she now tells the story of America’s hunt for Osama Bin Laden in the aftermath of 9/11. ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ documents the personal pursuit of CIA officer Maya, played by Jessica Chastain, over the decade it took to track down and kill the world’s most dangerous terrorist. Interesting from beginning to end, and brilliantly captured on screen, this very smart and gruelling picture holds nothing back.
Beginning with chilling audio excerpts of 9/11 over nothing but darkness, ZD30 cleverly thrusts the horror of that day back into the mindset of the audience, strangely making the controversial torture scenes in the opening hour a little easier to watch than they should be. By engineering the opening in this way, it feels like an attempt to make the viewer feel complicit in the horrible treatment, including water-boarding, of captured terrorist Ammar inflicted by cold minded CIA interrogator Dan. Throughout, the film feels hard faced, shying away from emotional sequences and focussing on the information provided rather than the delivery. At times the plot becomes muddled and it can become tough going in middle sections, particularly the sub plot of the supposed friendship between Maya and Jessica which felt forced and hard to believe. There is a wildly varied ensemble on show as supporting cast. After keeping characters very limited in the first hour or so, everyone comes along at once in a ‘blink or you’ll miss it’ conveyor belt of names such as James Gandolfini, Mark Strong, Mark Duplass and weirdly John Barrowman! After Tony Soprano, Torchwood’s Captain Jack and him from Renford Rejects pop up so unexpectedly I began to think somebody had swapped the film reel. They are all reasonably good, keeping the standard high enough but not attempting to steal the limelight, leaving all acting plaudits with JC. The script is nothing special here, the slick visuals outweighing the wordy dialogue, though the overall story, and that of the central character carry the plot along nicely until the thrilling climatic finish, which makes it all worthwhile.
Jessica Chastain gives a strong performance, and has a fascinating character arc. Starting as ‘the new girl’, being offered a mask to wear during the torture and interrogation, as if the terrorist wouldn’t take a young pasty face with fairytale ginger locks very seriously. She sharply disposes of this perception, going on to have a lead role in every step America takes to track down Bin Laden. The character study here is sadly non existent, as we are left with very little information of Maya herself; no mention of background or relatives, she isn’t even given a surname. Maybe this is intentional, bringing a heart-wrenching end to her ten year journey as we see her alone with one solitary tear streaming down her cheek, as she is left with no life direction at all. After achieving everything she’d set out to do since leaving high school and going straight into the CIA, she has given everything and has nothing left. Obvious comparisons can be made between Maya and Homeland’s Carrie Mathison: a strong woman, passionate about her job, sacrificing it all to succeed. Though where Claire Danes overplays brilliantly as frankly a mad-hatter, Jessica Chastain’s Maya is subtly excellent. She is well measured, always in control, keeping a lid on Maya’s emotion for the most part then letting go at just the right moment.
The ‘Bin Laden film’ was never going to be easy but Bigelow carries it out with real class and style, impressively boasting a genuinely exciting ending to a story is already so widely known. Although this film probably won’t be regarded in the same bracket as it’s aforementioned predecessor, it is big and bold and if you are at all interested in what is going on in the world around you, it is a must see.