Zero Dark Thirty (2012)
(15) Running time: 157 minutes
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Writer: Mark Boal
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Joel Edgerton, Chris Pratt, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler
Reviewed by: Matt Wavish, official HCF critic
Director Kathryn Bigelow has spent some thirty years directing films, and while her output is few and far between, when she delivers she is untouchable. Films like Near Dark, Strange Days and Point Break prove that Bigelow is one of the finest directors in the world, and 2008’s award winning The Hurt Locker proved that she is not only one of the best, but one of the most important directors working today, and one of the bravest too. The Hurt Locker made Bigelow a star, and four years later she returns with another controversial and politically dangerous film, Zero Dark Thirty, or “The Hunt for Osama Bin Laden” as it was originally intended.
Zero Dark Thirty started life as a movie based on one woman’s attempts to catch Bin Laden, and in the early stages of writing the story, Bin Laden was indeed caught and killed in a raid on his secret hideout. Bigelow and writer Mark Boal (who also worked as a writer on The Hurt Locker) had to change their film’s approach, and decided to keep with the story of hunting Bin Laden, and end it on his eventual demise. The fact we already know how the story ends is testament to Bigelow’s raw, uncompromising and incredibly exciting direction: even knowing the films outcome, Zero Dark Thirty is still a riveting, edge of your seat thriller that will have you hooked from the opening black screen (featuring chilling recordings of victims during 9/11) to the final raid on Bin Laden’s hideout. At over two and a half hours long, Zero Dark Thirty never drags, never loses your interest, and never wastes time with pathetic fillers or unnecessary plot devices. Bigelow has made a film reminiscent of Stephen Gaghan’s superb thriller, Syriana. In Zero Dark Thirty you are bombarded with tons of information, and like Jessica Chastain’s Maya, if you listen carefully and put the pieces together, you can follow the events and hopefully keep up.
Bigelow has a mountain of information and revelations to get through here, but make no mistake there are plenty of scenes here which can be hard to watch. The realism she brings to the screen is unforgiving, powerful and at times utterly devastating. The scenes of torture which make up a good part of the first hour are brutal, hard to stomach but straight and to the point. Bigelow is not condoning torture, nor is she making a case against it. Here she simply shows on screen what has happened, and shows not only the gambles and risks these men take (on both sides) but also she shows arguments for and against torture. On one hand later in the film when agents are lost in a savage suicide bomb attack, CIA agents are angry and point the finger that taking away their right to force information through torture is causing them to start losing the battle. On the other hand we see employed torturer Dan (a mesmerizing Jason Clarke) eventually struggling with his duties and wanting out. Bigelow never forces her opinions on you with these difficult scenes, she simply shows the actions and allows you, the viewer, to make you own mind up as to what is right and what is wrong. However, these early scenes have been causing Bigelow all sorts of problems, but she could not tell the story without it.
As the film progresses past these early moments in the hunt for Bin Laden, we begin to delve deeper into more information on events, dates, people and threats. Maya, after witnessing the torture first hand, toughens up almost instantly as she begins a ten year obsessive search for the world’s most wanted man. Chastain is on show stopping form, she is simply amazing as she hardens up and begins to get her own way. As a character, thankfully we do not learn much about her, and any information we do learn is through subtle conversations, like when a fellow agent asks her is she has any friends, and she simply looks down at her drink. Or later on when we learn that this ten year hunt for Bin Laden is the only job she has done for the CIA, and she will not give up her reasons to the CIA director (a brilliant cameo by James Gandolfini). All we need to know about Maya is the here and now, and any back-story to her character would have watered down the reality, it could almost have come across as a desperate attempt by Boal and Bigelow for sympathy. The film isn’t looking for any sympathy vote, and Bigelow is too smart to ask for it. We get tough, believable characters who come and go and rarely let you close enough to make a connection, but such is this world. There are a few characters you will grow to like, Maya is magnetic on screen and you cannot help but cheer her on, but others characters like Dan (the torturer) and the eventual team who raid Bin Laden’s house, will all make that movie character connection where you actually care what happens to them.
Bigelow’s direction and skills at storytelling are stunning to behold on screen. The film whizzes past at breakneck speed, and even though some have said the film has a painfully slow build up, I whole heartedly disagree. You won’t want to miss a single word here because if you do, you will have missed something that just might explain something later on. This is a film which requires focus and your full attention, and because you end up SO engrossed in the film, sudden terrorist attacks or moments of emotion will be so much more powerful. There are a number of terrorist attacks shown on screen: The London bombings, The Marriott Hotel, an attack on Maya herself and even savage protests outside the US Embassy in Pakistan (oh yes, the film travels the world in the blink of an eye!). Each and every moment of violence or threat is built up with unbelievable tension, but respectfully Bigelow does not dwell on the after effects. She simply shows what happened as a means to tell the story, but her staggering use of dazzling sound effects mean that many scenes here will have you more on edge than your average horror film. Again, the realism creates moments of incredible power both in its shock value, and also giving you a sense of what it must have been like.
The final forty odd moments of the film is the eventual raid on Bin Laden’s fortress, a hideout that Maya has had her sights set on for some time, but needed proof. There’s no point going into detail about how the eventual raid was authorised as it has been reported countless times, but as we follow the quiet helicopters to the target, you will find yourself literally on the edge of your seat. The scenes play out almost in real-time, but due to the extent of the operation we must follow different groups of soldiers as they do what must be done to gain access to the hideout. Each and every explosion and gunshot will go right through you and rattle your senses. Bigelow even employs the use of REAL night vision on her cameras to get the full effect of the events at “zero dark thirty” (a military term of half past midnight). The raid is up there with some of the finest, riveting and thrilling action scenes ever put to film, and anyone who has seen the documentary about how it all went down will be happy to know that Bigelow follows the events to the letter. A staggering moment of pure brilliance, and totally breathtaking.
Zero Dark Thirty is truly masterful filmmaking on an enormous scale of guts and determination. Bigelow knew she was on dangerous ground with this one, but wanted to tell the story anyway, and she tells it with heart, compassion and respect. Each and every cast member, from Chastain’s Maya to an extra in a village market, all give exceptional performances, again the signs of a director completely in control. This film is raw, unflinching and, most importantly, is brave, bold and brilliant. A risky film to make, done by a filmmaker clearly not afraid to tackle the subject matter and try and make some kind of sense of it all. Zero Dark Thirty could have been ultra patriotic and even gun-ho, but it isn’t. The film could have come across a little too much like a documentary, but it doesn’t. Bigelow and Boal have somehow placed their film right slap bang in the middle and made a near perfect film that will educate, excite and shock in equal measure.