After the success of Best Picture winner The Hurt Locker, it made perfect sense for director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal to continue in the same vein as this intense, highly realistic war epic, their original intention being to portray the failed attack on Osama bin Laden in 2001. When news came in 2011, however, that soldiers had actually managed to kill and capture bin Laden at his residence in Pakistan, Bigelow realised that a completely new film would have to be created, one that chronicled the ten years leading up to this historic moment. They shelved the original script, started again from scratch, and the result, just 18 months after the raid itself, is Zero Dark Thirty.
Bigelow has said in interviews that what she was attempting was a journalistic, procedural approach to film, and this is certainly true of Zero Dark Thirty. Events on-screen are (one has to assume) strictly fact-based and, more importantly, un-biased; this is the right way to shoot a modern war movie, with the opinions of the film-makers left back at the office. That being said, ZDT is a lot more interesting as a story than it is gripping. To those without a detailed knowledge of the inner-workings of the CIA, younger members of the audience especially, much of the plot will be unknown, and ignoring some of the more overly-dramatised portions, the film could almost be viewed as a documentary.
The problem is that ZDT tries to cover too much in such a short space of time: ten whole years in just over two and a half hours, particularly with the amount of detail that the script has to communicate. There are moments, the London bus bombing and the explosion at the Islamabad hotel especially, that are only briefly touched upon – there is simply too much going on and it becomes hard at times to assess the impact that these kinds of events had on the operation itself.
The performances are what hold it all together. Jessica Chastain is incredible as Maya (whose real life counterpart remains undercover); her previous on-screen appearances in Lawless and The Tree of Life don’t do her talent enough justice. She carries the lead role with such an unemotional determination interspersed with moments of lightness and alacrity that it’s clear to see why she earned the Oscar nomination (although her resemblance to Claire Danes’ character in Homeland is unfortunate, minus the occasional bout of psychosis). Jason Clarke also gives a surprising performance as a tough, but friendly CIA operative and the appearance of Mark Strong is a delight as always.
For those unaware of the controversy surrounding ZDT, several critics have argued that its depiction of torture (and there’s a lot of it) is not only unnecessary to the narrative, but actually an endorsement; ‘pro-torture’ is the phrase being thrown around. At the start of the film, Ammar, a captive with supposed terrorist contacts, is subjected to beatings, waterboarding and is forced into a small box – it’s horrible to watch, but it in no way endorses torture. This brings us back to Bigelow’s idea of a ‘journalistic’ approach to film; it’s made clear that the CIA do not take any pleasure in these interrogations but the film remains neutral in what it shows to the audience and the torture is neither approved of nor condemned – it’s merely part of the story.
The last act, however, is where it all comes together. The raid on bin Laden’s hideout in the early hours of the morning (zero dark thirty, to be precise) is reminiscent of some of the tenser scenes from The Hurt Locker and is such a brilliantly compelling piece of film-making that it’s difficult to look away. Obviously the audience knows the outcome (apologies to anyone living under a rock), but it’s how the soldiers actually carry out the covert op that makes it so fascinating. Zero Dark Thirty may not be as perfect as Bigelow’s previous effort, but it comes very close; it’s masterful, analytical and a fresh and impressive contribution to its genre.