This was the film everybody knew was coming when US President Barack Obama announced that Osama Bin Laden had been killed in a raid in Pakistan in the early hours of May 2, 2011. I remember thinking at the time that the film was most probably going to be another “Team America!” (f*%k yeah!) style-film like Act of Valor (which I am yet to review) and that it was most likely going to suck balls.
But then I heard that the film was going to be directed by Academy Award winner Kathryn Bigelow, who gave us Best Picture winner The Hurt Locker, and more importantly, she had already been planning a film about the hunt for Bin Laden for years and done stacks of background research that could be imported over to this new project.
The result, Zero Dark Thirty, is a tense, meticulously crafted, superbly acted and unsensationalized account of the 10-year hunt for in Laden since 9/11. While I don’t agree with a lot of American critics who are calling it the best film of the year — I actually think it’s an inferior film to The Hurt Locker — I was still fascinated and riveted by this film from start to finish. The final extended raid sequence, which is like another film in itself, felt so authentic that I almost thought I was watching a documentary with actual footage of the assault on Bin Laden’s compound.
This speaks volumes about Bigelow’s ability as a director. We know how the story begins and how it ends, but somehow she still manages to create tension and drama with everything in between. The story focuses on Maya, a young federal agent played by Jessica Chastain (who picked up the Golden Globe and is a favourite for the Oscars) whose job description consists of only one thing: find Bin Laden. We follow Maya for a decade as she endures numerous close calls and goes from green rookie to seasoned veteran, from a novice interrogator (aka torturer) to one of the most instrumental contributors in locating Bin Laden and ultimately convincing the White House to carry out the raid.
Chastain, with her obsessive work ethic and feistiness, is the heart and soul of the film and rightfully deserves the Oscar nomination. A couple of Aussies, Jason Clarke and Joel Edgerton (both of whom will be seen next in The Great Gatsby) also shine in pivotal roles. The most recognizable members of the cast, Mark Strong, Kyle Chandler and James Gandolfini, are also stellar and surprisingly non-distracting.
Some say Zero Dark Thirty is a controversial film because of its supposedly pro-torture stance. Yes, it shows torture and the torture being effective in getting terror suspects to talk, but I don’t think that is necessarily saying torture is a good thing. The fact is, the US government did torture terror suspects (though the extent is disputed by officials), and it probably worked. But it’s not just that — I think Bigelow was trying to show the audience the price America had to pay to get their man, and questions us whether it was worth it. In that sense it’s arguable that Zero Dark Thirty is in fact an anti-torture movie. But to be honest I don’t really care. It’s just a movie.
There are parts of the 160-minute film that some viewers will find a little slow. I’ve been addicted to Homeland lately so all that espionage talk and the insights into the politics of politics was right up my alley, though I admit there was, naturally, a sense of inevitability to the whole thing. This is why I still think The Hurt Locker is a better film, but there is no doubt that Zero Dark Thirty will go down in history as the far more memorable one.
4 stars out of 5
PS: The trailer to the sequel below.