Gripping, intelligent, innovative, powerful. Critics on a regular basis bandy about these words. Some readers might argue not often enough, for too few films truly deserve such terms.
You will no doubt hear such superlatives used to describe Zero Dark Thirty and most probably herein (consider it done). You will also read much about the controversial torture scenes that open the film and ongoing debate they sparked in the US. They are difficult to watch. Perhaps because they are presented within a moral vacuum, much like they occurred in actuality. And that’s how director Kathryn Bigelow styles this exceptional piece of journalistic procedural thriller. She, like her central protag Maya (Jessica Chastain), doesn’t shy away from hard and horrible truths and possesses a coolly obsessive bent for details in going about her job. The job onscreen is the decade long search for Osama Bin Laden, and whilst this was obviously a collective imperative, it is crystallised here into the utmost single purpose in CIA agent Maya. To say she makes Clarice Starling look like Inspector Clouseau is over-stretching a little and perhaps unfair to both Jodie Foster and that film, but serves to illustrate a point. That’s how good Chastain is, in an equally remarkable role based on a hitherto unnamed real female operative.
Zero Dark Thirty begins with a collage of real life audio from 9/11; an event that still resonates emotionally from this effectively cut series of sound bites. What proceeds is a fascinating and detailed account of how a small team of CIA agents based in Pakistan track down the impossibly elusive Al-Qaeda head. The ‘enhanced interrogation’ techniques used by Dan (Jason Clarke) and soon after by Maya, are just one part of the information gathering. It is a seemingly unreliable one at that (to what extent is the contention), but is depicted all the same as contributing to the overall mission’s final result. Mostly what is gleaned from the broken detainees is a mere starting point of slippery mistruths to be decoded and analysed into actual leads. It’s riveting to watch how the process, as meticulously scribed by screenwriter Mark Boal, plays out in stunningly staged action sequences, not least the climatic final half hour as Navy Seals infiltrate Bin Laden’s compound at 12.30am (to which the film’s title refers). It’s eerily slow and intensely suspenseful despite the outcome being something of a foregone conclusion. But that’s testament to Bigelow’s talent for creating the pure cinematic entertainment that is Zero Dark Thirty.