Kathryn Bigelow’s latest film Zero Dark Thirty tells the allegedly true story of the CIA manhunt for Osama Bin Laden. I say allegedly because two groups have bitterly criticised the film’s factual veracity, claiming it amounts to propaganda. Some are worried the film endorses the use of torture. Others allege the film is a total fiction as Osama Bin Laden was killed long ago and the entire operation was staged for dubious political reasons.
Whatever the truth, Zero Dark Thirty is a very compelling watch. Frankly I don’t care if it endorses torture or if Bin Laden was already dead. If Bigelow wants to offend me or lie to me then that is fine, as long as she doesn’t bore me. Anyone who knows her work knows Bigelow doesn’t do boring. She is one of the most accomplished genre directors in the business.
What makes this film work particularly well is its single-minded focus. We learn next to nothing about the protagonist Maya (Jessica Chastain), other than she is a highly professional, determined, and ultimately obsessed woman, utterly driven in her quest to nail Bin Laden. Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal’s refusal to clutter the narrative with love interests, family backgrounds and so forth work very strongly in the film’s favour.
As always, Chastain is superb. She, along with Anne Hathaway and Emily Blunt, are currently in jostling for number one position as my favourite actress, but of the three I would say Chastain is the most versatile and her performance here is well deserving of the Oscar nomination she has received. There is good support from the rest of the cast – including Joel Edgerton, Kyle Chandler, Mark Strong, Jason Clarke and James Gandolfini – but it is Chastain that dominates and rightly so.
Zero Dark Thirty is an interesting companion piece to Bigelow’s previous film The Hurt Locker, in that the main characters in both films ultimately seem empty shells beyond their single-minded purpose. Additionally this film shares The Hurt Locker’s resolutely apolitical stance, despite what some critics have said. The depiction of torture is brutal and spares the viewer nothing (and whilst we’re on the subject, it’s worth adding a warning about swearing as well). However, the presence of such scenes does not amount to an argument in favour of torture or an argument against. It is simply an accurate reflection of what was happening at the time. Bigelow is more interested in building the slow burn tension, which works particularly well as Maya herself becomes a target.
In short, Zero Dark Thirty is a gritty, grisly but gripping piece of work.