Zero Dark Thirty review

Kathryn Bigelow's bin Laden hunt drama has received praise and criticism. Here's Ryan's review of the controversial Zero Dark Thirty...

Having earned plaudits for bomb-disposal drama The Hurt Locker in 2008, Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal return with Zero Dark Thirty, a document of the lengthy, expensive and bloody campaign to capture Osama bin Laden. Beginning in the aftermath of September 2001 and following the story to its abrupt conclusion almost a decade later, Bigelow’s movie has arrived on a tide of both praise and controversy, with some arguing that it plays fast and loose with the facts, and worse, legitimises the use of torture.

Zero Dark Thirty is seen almost exclusively through the eyes of Maya (Jessica Chastain), a young CIA operative who spends more than a decade in the pursuit of the most wanted man in US history. Like Clarice Starling in Silence Of The Lambs, she’s a tough woman in an almost exclusively male line of work; she bears witness to the brutal treatment of suspected al Quaida operatives held in secret bases in the Middle East and Poland, and repeatedly locks horns with bosses over her tenacious desire to locate a man she believes to have direct links to Bin Laden himself.

Chastain puts in a determined, strong performance in a difficult role that requires equal parts aggression and pathos. She’s joined by a sterling supporting cast, whose roles vary from the brief-yet-memorable to two-line, blink-and-you’ll-miss-them cameos. Mark Strong stalks around a board room and shouts from beneath a carefully-combed wig as a CIA higher-up named George. Lawless’s Jason Clarke plays a wayward torturer with a fondness for monkeys, and James Gandolfini brings charisma to his handful of scenes as a Central Intelligence director. Torchwood fans may be excited to note that John Barrowman appears for a few seconds, before walking into a lift and disappearing forever.

These recognisable faces are important, because Zero Dark Thirty is a cold fish of a film more interested in procedure than emotion – Maya’s character is little more than a cypher, the audience’s eyes and ears in unfamiliar territory.

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The first 40-or-so minutes of the film are almost entirely concerned with the torture of a suspected terrorist, and it has to be said that this entire sequence of events is difficult to watch – not only because we’re seeing a human in pain, but also because it makes us question our sympathies.

The movie’s come under fire for trivialising torture, or perhaps even promoting the notion that such cruel treatment works. While viewers will have their own interpretation of what they see, it’s worth noting that torture achieves very little; in spite of all the waterboarding, beating and sexual humiliation he metes out, Clarke’s medieval torturer fails to avert any of the terrorist attacks briefly alluded to elsewhere in the movie. It’s Maya’s cunning, rather than violence, that eventually yields tangible results.

If Zero Dark Thirty does have a flaw, it’s that it falls between two stools. With lengthy scenes of meetings and interminable, often difficult to follow investigative chatter, it serves as a slow and overlong document of recent American history. And with the script devoting so little time to fleshing out Maya’s backstory, it doesn’t function particularly well as a character study, either. All we know is that she’s a stoic and determined, and that various events in the movie make her more stoic and determined still – at times, her determination reaches slightly absurd extremes, as she harangues bosses with numbers scribbled on office windows with magic markers, and swearily asserts herself in front of James Gandolfini’s avuncular CIA director. Such moments remind us that, although this is an attempt at soberly recounting history, Bigelow can’t quite keep Hollywood histrionics out of the picture.

From a visual and technical standpoint, Zero Dark Thirty is an extremely well-made film. It’s excellently acted, superbly shot, and Bigelow knows how to inject tension into low-key scenes of action; the final sequence is perfectly staged, and absorbing enough to make us forget that we know roughly how it all ends. 

At the end of it all, Zero Dark Thirty feels rather hollow. But then, maybe this is the point; Osama bin Laden was built up in our media as something akin to a demon – an unseen orchestrator of evil who, for years, appeared to be immortal. Ultimately, he was just a man, and Zero Dark Thirty ends not on a note of victory, but more a sense of relief that a terrible chapter in history is, for better or worse, finally over.

Zero Dark Thirty opens on the 25th January in the UK.

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3 out of 5