In the opening scene of Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, the real-life story of the CIA’s search for Osama Bin Laden, a collection of telephone recordings from inside the collapsing World Trade Center is played. It’s a dark introduction and one that establishes Bigelow’s eagerness to emphasise the truth behind the film before throwing the audience head-first into one of the film’s torture scenes and introducing Jessica Chastain’s Maya, the largely fictionalised protagonist of the story.
As a rookie agent, Maya operates as our eyes and ears in this dark political landscape. She is a character who is horrified by her first contact with the extreme interrogation techniques of the CIA but who then develops into a chillingly effective interrogator herself. Chastain’s perfectly nuanced performance gives life to a character that could have been unlikeable and apathetic in the wrong hands: it is with every subtle gesture and flicker of emotion that we see a little bit more of this ice-cold character’s human side.
Bigelow adopts a similarly distant style, which could explain the director’s recent Oscar snub. In an attempt to free the film from any typical Hollywood embellishments, the events of the story are portrayed in a matter-of-fact, documentary style. Her commitment to the truth, on the other hand, robs the film of some tension and drive in the first act, an hour or so entirely dedicated to gathering intelligence. However, in the second act, and not a moment too soon, Zero Dark Thirty finally hits another gear and accelerates towards a conclusion with a thrilling sense of urgency and purpose that was slightly lacking up until that point. It is here that Bigelow demonstrates why she is an Oscar-winner. The build up to, and execution of, the raid on Bin Laden’s compound is a master-class in action directing.
Despite its achievements in film-making, and there are many, Zero Dark Thirty left me feeling empty. Ultimately, without any comment on the actions, methods or even people within the CIA, the film isn’t as thought-provoking or emotionally engaging as it should have been. The side-lining of Maya in favour of an underdeveloped Navy Seals Team in the climactic scene does nothing to raise the emotional stakes.
Zero Dark Thirty is a film that is difficult to define. It is an action film with only one action scene; a film about politics with no political stance and a thriller with a limited number of thrills. But somehow it works on all of these levels. The fascinating true-story is enough to hold the audience’s attention throughout the near 3-hour running time and no one can have you on the edge of your seat quite like Bigelow. It is refreshing to see a contemporary thriller leave the audience to form their own opinions although some may be frustrated by the film’s deliberate neutrality. The combination of a director and actor working at the top of their game elevate this complex film above most others, even if you leave the cinema wanting a bit more.
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