Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Zero Dark Thirty

The follow up to Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar winning The Hurt Locker is Zero Dark Thirty, a film set around the ten year hunt for Osama Bin Laden. Opening with an incredibly visceral, sound only montage of 9/11 telephone recordings in which people are heard calling home and on the phone to the emergency services the film then follows the next ten years in the hunt for 9/11’s orchestrator, Osama Bin Laden. Young CIA Operative Maya (Jessica Chastain) lands in Pakistan to begin work at the US Embassy and various black sites in the area. She witnesses torture first hand and soon picks up a lead which she believes will bring the US to Bin Laden.

The final forty minutes of the movie creates an incredibly realistic reconstruction of the final assault on Bin Laden’s compound and is perhaps the most compelling and seemingly accurate depiction of a black ops mission I’ve ever seen. Tense doesn’t even come close and despite knowledge of how things would pan out I was still glued to the screen with awe but felt repulsed by its realism. The realism actually made me feel uncomfortable and although I think that Zero Dark Thirty is a good film, I didn’t like it.

Some of the better aspects of the movie are also what I didn’t like about it. For instance I think that it was bold to show the scenes of torture and although I don’t personally believe that Mark Boal and Kathryn Bigelow support the methods depicted, it is easy to see why some people have taken that stance. On the surface it does look as though the US, in the film at least, did get results through torture. It might not have been the actual acts of torture but rather the fear of it that delivered the results but it looms over the movie. The fact that evidence already held by the Americans could have got them their results faster is of little consequence as that doesn’t appear to be the primary source of intelligence capturing. What is never addressed is if what they are being told under torture is the truth or not. The only time the truth is questioned is in a scene in Poland where a prisoner is freely giving information. The film treads a very fine line on its use of torture. It comes across as pro torture even if the film makers honestly didn’t intend it to be.

It was the early scenes of torture and the closing scenes of the military raid that made me the most uncomfortable. I think it is a good thing that Bigelow decided to show both in detail but I didn’t enjoy watching it. I had an ache at the pit of my stomach and even though I have no sympathy for those being shot it wasn’t pleasant viewing. The fact that everything is so recent also gave me cause for concern. As well as it being so fresh in the mind it also gives the film makers no time for history to pan out. Zero Dark Thirty isn’t the only film to have been set around recent events in the Middle East and Asia but none focussed on this aspect of the campaign there and I personally believe it was made too soon. Although I didn’t enjoy a lot of the film I still think that it was very well made and the final forty minutes in particular feature some incredible film making.

The central act was my favourite, by which I mean least hated and is set in Washington and Pakistan. It was really interesting and the techniques used to hunt Bin Laden were more of the traditional sort that you’d find in spy movies. The technology used is great and the methods are extremely sophisticated. There is a cat and mouse feel to it as the net shrinks around the target. The political aspect of the story is also shown and the risk assessment and debate about whether Bin Laden was really there is fascinating. Jessica Chastain is excellent in the middle third as well as being great all the way through and deserves her awards and nominations. She is intelligent, persistent and intuitive and it is clear that catching Bin Laden is her only goal. There is very little to her besides that and any hints of socialising or sexuality are quickly suppressed. Her single mindedness to her task is perhaps most evident in the very final scene when she looks lost when someone asks her “Where do you want to go?” She has no answer as for the last ten years it has been wherever takes her closer to Bin Laden. There is a very large supporting cast which includes Mark Strong who is great, James Gandolfini, Jason Clark who is very good, Mark Duplass, Frank Grillo, Joel Edgerton and weirdly John Barrowman. His fame here in the UK makes him look out of place. On the whole though the acting is really good.

The script is also outstanding although I have problems with its content as I’ve already said. I fully went into the film ready to bat away accusations of pro torture stances and the glorification of torture but unfortunately I can’t honestly commit to that. The mere depiction isn’t the problem (Spielberg isn’t pro Nazi for featuring Nazis in Schindler’s List) but it is the way that it appears to work that I have a problem with. Zero Dark Thirty is a film which left me feeling depressed and battered. It definitely affected me and that to me is a sign that it worked. I’d rather leave a film having not liked it than having it wash over me and as I said in my opening it is a very good film, I just didn’t enjoy sitting through it. 

 GFR 3/10 

 Rooney Mara was originally cast in Jessica Chastain's role but dropped out.
Jordan and India were used to depict Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Zero Dark Thirty is a military term for 12:30am, the local time of the final raid.


  1. Whoever knows if this whole thing is accurate or not, either way, I know that I had a great time with this movie as it kept me on-the-edge-of-my-seat, just about from beginning-to-end. And even that end, holy crap was it great! Good review Tom.

  2. I understand what you mean. Some real life depiictions or recreatings can be exhausting. So real it hurts. The driving tracking the person is thrilling as drama goes. Thoughtful review.

    1. Thanks. I think in the west we are so used to highly edited news which shows little or nothing of real war that seeing it up close of screen was just too much for me.

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