Zero Dark Thirty - Movie Review


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Zero Dark Thirty - Movie Review
The hunt for bin Laden becomes a talky thriller
Zero Dark Thirty (2013)
Kathryn Bigelow
Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke
Release Date:
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An intimate portrait of the 10 year search for Osama bin Laden and the one woman who dedicated her life to tracking down the most wanted man in the world.

Acclaimed in certain circles for her genre efforts in the 80s and 90s, chiefly Near Dark and Point Break, director Kathryn Bigelow all but dropped off the map after the critical and commercial failure of submarine movie K-19: The Widowmaker in 2002.

Rarely even nominated for a major award for her film work and generally more famous for being once married to uber filmmaker James Cameron - Bigelow was considered a has been. That was until 2009 when The Hurt Locker stormed into cinemas - eventually going on to win six Oscars, including Best Director and Best Picture. And both of them snatched from Cameron.

The question of whether The Hurt Locker deserved that kind of acclaim is for another time but regardless Bigelow could expect to draw far more attention for her next project, and she decided to move even further away from her action cinema roots.

Zero Dark Thirty is a detailed, even forensic look at the process which led to the death of Osama bin Laden in 2011.
Screenwriter Mark Boal (who also wrote The Hurt Locker and produces here) drew on extensive interviews conducted with the men and women who were involved with the operation, on a script which changed shape considerably once bin Laden had been located and killed.

Boal and Bigelow decided to focus their story on one main character, Maya, who spearheaded the investigation for a decade - foregoing every other aspect of her life on her quest. Investigations, shady deals and much publicised torture lead to the final sequence which details the attack almost in real time.

The attack unfolds almost in real time
The attack unfolds almost in real timeEnlarge Enlarge

Fans of The Hurt Locker should take note, ZeroDark Thirty is a very different film - one which shows a war that was won in the boardrooms rather than on the battlefield. There is almost no action on screen and when it does come the facts of recorded history make it all but devoid of tension.

But Bigelow retains the rough and ready, real world feel which characterised The Hurt Locker, beefing it up with bigger scale and more impressive performances than before.

Chief among them is Jessica Chastain, who shoulders much of the movie as lead Maya. She’s an actress who materialised out of nowhere in 2011 to feature in a massive seven films, including The Tree of Life,Take Shelter and The Help, for which she picked up a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nod. She’s an engaging actress and mixes fierce determination with some nice lighter moments here, brow-beating her superiors into chasing leads and keeping on target.

Given the nature of most of the film, there are few standout moments in the performance - something which may not stand to her come Oscar night - but it really manages to sell the reality of office bound heroics which must happen everyday.

Chastain has able support from a massive roster of players - including big roles for an impressiveJason Clarke and the ever busy Jennifer Ehle. Kyle Chandler plays the bureaucrat while Mark Strong manages to have some fun as their superior. And the list doesn’t stop there - with fleeting roles for Chris Pratt, Joel Edgerton, Mark Duplass, Frank Grillo and even action chap Scott Adkins.

The film is at its best when the team are deep in their investigations - running down leads and tracking the movements of their villain. Interpersonal matters are all but omitted and the scenes of torture - some presented in an incongrously slick montage - will have you squirming for a variety of reasons.

The final siege is the moment audiences might be most anticipating, and the level of detail is certainly commendable, as well as Bigelow’s decision to stick with the reality of what two dozen armed Navy SEALs would do to three unprepared combatants. It’s all impressively shot and presented, with near documentary realism from cinematographer Greig Fraser.

Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty
Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark ThirtyEnlarge Enlarge

But ZeroDarkThirty is not without its issues. The 157 minute running time is unnecessary, with the pacing flagging in a despondent middle third. And there’s the inescapable fact that the history of the operation is known by all - the ending is never in doubt and tension is only forced into being by needless machinations, an attempt which is further thwarted by every good scene appearing in the trailers.

Above all else, for me, was that this is a long, detailed and solidly made film which is about killing a man. As in the real case, there’s never the slightest suggestion that bin Laden should be captured and brought to trial for his crimes. And while it almost certainly resonates differently with American audiences, the ending didn’t feel like any kind of victory to me, as I watched the SEALs punish a corpse with unnecessary ballistics.

Zero Dark Thirty is peerless from a filmmaking standpoint - Bigelow knows her craft and Boal’s research is no doubt impeccable. But as a cinema experience it feels lacking, missing a single minded political voice and too serious to ever really strive for entertainment. The Hurt Locker may have had its root in the real life experiences of the soldiers on the ground in Iraq but it remained an action thriller, an intensely cinematic portrait of a man wrought by the fires of war. With ZeroDark Thirty, Bigelow tries to tackle a subject that’s too real and raw, with the result ultimately unsatisfying.

7 Stars
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