Mark Boal and Kathryn Bigelow, the writer-director pair behind Oscar winning Iraq war drama The Hurt Locker, were all set to make their follow-up film about a failed capture of Osama bin Laden. Of course, that was until they received word that, on May 2nd 2011, the American Special Forces struck lucky second time around. Most filmmakers would have shelved the project altogether, but this defiant duo decided to start all over again.
Zero Dark Thirty stars Hollywood’s leading lady of the moment Jessica Chastain as CIA agent Maya. A relatively new police official, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, she’s sent to the US Embassy in Pakistan, assigned the fearsome job to hunt-down the world’s most wanted man, DOA. Chronicling her nine yearlong pursuit, Maya is confronted with countless false-leads, dead-ends, bureaucratic red tape, political espionage, and the rising death toll of her embassy colleagues. It’s enough to cause a breakdown, but it only makes Maya more dedicated and resilient with the manhunt.
No words can do justice for Chastain’s Oscar nominated performance. Maya is a character so completely drained of emotion or sympathy, that her presence is endlessly mesmerizing. Similarly to her underrated 1989 cop drama Blue Steel, Bigelow presents a formidable and empowering heroine that is so rarely available in mainstream cinema and society altogether. Ballsy and shrewd, Chastain’s Maya is the beating heart of what is an otherwise entirely unnerving, frosty feature.
That’s not to say it’s bad, of course, just difficult. At times, it can be very difficult. Working with Killing Them Softly’s director of photography Greig Saucer, the handheld close-ups that dominate the film are so claustrophobic that you can almost taste the desert sand stuck on the camera lens. However, such a barebones aesthetic also produces some of the most white-knuckle cinematic experiences you’ll ever see; particularly in the final blackened night, capture-and-kill sequence.
As with The Hurt Locker, ferocious visuals are not the only thing ZD30 has in its’ impressive inventory. Primarily based on interviews with intelligence operators and undisclosed CIA officials’ reports, journalist-cum-screenplay writer Mark Boal produces a script which mercurially bulldozes any narrative clichés and formulaic character tropes and instead delivers punchy political dialogue, so naturalistically delivered that it really has an uncomfortably veracious, almost documentarian zing to it.
Seeing as we all know the story’s eventual outcome, the film rightly focuses on a warts-and-all depiction of the procedural, comprehensive details Maya’s first experience working with trophy infidel interrogator Dan (Jason Clarke), up to when she shakes the President’s defence committee into red-alert action (expertly, if all too briefly played out by James Gandolfini and Mark Strong).
Despite the critical plaudits and award pile-ups, the film’s moment in the limelight has been stolen by a particularly shouty debate on its’ presentation of waterboarding and torture, more generally. Most shockingly of all is to find that, amongst all that divisive babbling, ZD30 is controversial in how starkly uncontroversial it all is. In what could understandably be considered a criticism of the film, Bigelow and Boal’s presentation of such nefarious subject matter is so pragmatic, so docile, that they have not only earned their ‘based on a true story’ stripes, but used them as a catalyst for public provocation.
If you want to watch a film littered with scorn and staunch commentary on the American war on terror, perhaps you’d be better off with puppet-starring satire Team America. If you want the most unnerving, brilliantly acted thriller of the year, see Zero Dark Thirty. Remorseless and torturous throughout it’s entire 157 minutes it may be, but you won’t be able to stop watching.