You want your filmmaker to have meticulously planned their film, for it to be a passion project they’ve been outlining for years, whereas this feels more like a quick fire job, “Quick bin Laden has been killed – make a movie!” However, it’s not like that at all, as Kathryn Bigelow returns in stunning fashion in her follow up to 2010 Oscar winner The Hurt Locker.
Zero Dark Thirty chronicles the decade between the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the death of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, as we watch this often exasperating hunt unravel through the eyes of the placid yet immensely determined CIA agent Maya (Jessica Chastain). Working intensely and under much scrutiny and pressure, Maya is assisted by the likes of Dan (Jason Clarke), George (Mark Strong) and Steve (Mark Duplass), before finally, after 10 long years of suffering, a Navy S.E.A.L. Team, led by squadron team leader Patrick (Joel Edgerton) manage to identify and take out their much coveted target.
Neglecting the expected and somewhat clichéd patriarchy, Zero Dark Thirty appears as an honest, understated portrayal of such events, where, unlike Argo, for example, you feel that Bigelow has remained entirely faithful to the story and has used up very little of her artistic licence. Such a realistic approach makes for a more harrowing film, providing an insight into a set of events that help define a very important piece of modern history.
Bigelow implements real life news stories and footage too, and she hasn’t used an actor to play bin Laden: the pictures of the target pinned to the wall are of the real man himself, giving the feature an almost fly-on-the-wall feel. To epitomise just how neutral a piece of filmmaking this is, Bigelow doesn’t even present the US in a necessarily positive way. This isn’t patriotic claptrap – in the early stages of the film she actually makes you empathise with the antagonists, portraying the American torture methods as unethical and dishonourable, no doubt helped by the fact we see proceedings through the eyes of an inherently decent person in Maya.
Chastain is fantastic as our lead, in a performance certainly worthy of picking up the Best Actress accolade at the forthcoming Academy Awards. She has a wonderful humility to her demeanour, portraying a resolute determination and vulnerability in equal measure. She doesn’t overact in the slightest, she is a humble performer, and one that carries a brilliantly graceful screen presence. It’s interesting how we do view the entire thing through the eyes of a woman, taking her stand in an otherwise male dominated environment. No doubt Bigelow was able to channel her own experiences through her lead given she’s done a rather similar thing herself in the directing world. Meanwhile the supporting cast are all impressive too, with the likes of Jennifer Ehle, Reda Kateb and James Gandolfini contributing significantly. Oh, and a mention for John Barrowman too. But that’s just for being John Barrowman.
The feature has a terribly taut, suspenseful atmosphere to it throughout, a remarkable achievement for Bigelow to pull off given the audience all know the ending – yet this doesn’t change a thing. Zero Dark Thirty is presented in such a way that, even though we all know what happens, it’s so tense and the task seems so impossible that you actually begin to doubt whether or not they can get achieve their goal, and credit must go to Bigelow for this. The only notable criticism however, is that despite the final hour of this feature being absolutely brilliant, gripping cinema, it does take a while to get there, following a rather slow start. Although in a sense this is a fair reflection of the lengthy, tedious process in finding bin Laden.
There is something definitive about Zero Dark Thirty as a piece of filmmaking, as though Bigelow is concluding the entire ordeal for us on the big screen, as a film that could well earn her yet another Oscar. Outspoken writer Bret Easton Ellis recently claimed that Bigelow had only won awards due to the fact she’s a “hot woman”. Well, it seems that natural talent helps too.