Zero Dark Thirty, 2012.
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow.
Starring Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Joel Edgerton, Mark Strong, Chris Pratt, Kyle Chandler, Taylor Kinney, Mark Duplass, Stephen Dillane, Edgar Ramirez, Frank Grillo, Harold Perrineau, Jennifer Ehle, James Gandolfini, Scott Adkins and John Barrowman.
A chronicle of the decade-long hunt for al-Qaeda terrorist leader Osama bin Laden after the September 2001 attacks, and his death at the hands of the Navy S.E.A.L. Team 6 in May 2011.
Since 9/11 there have been many (too many) films telling various stories of that fateful day, or the events which have happened as a result; it is a subject which will always touch a nerve as we’re only a decade on and the effects are still reverberating to this day. Many people can’t get past watching a film on this subject without drawing political assessments of what they think the filmmaker is trying to say, but this review is just about the quality of Kathryn Bigelow’s film and nothing else. Do I think it’s pro-torture? I really couldn’t care less either way.
As a film Zero Dark Thirty both succeeds and shows its shortcomings on two fronts. The first 25 minutes are arguably the most efficient scenes in the film as we see the torture of a suspect with connections leading directly to Osama bin Laden; these scenes are captivating yet uncomfortable to watch but are a necessary part of the story. As callous as this may seem, the film would have benefitted from showing more of these scenes as the lengths the CIA were prepared to go to get vital information from a suspect were the most interesting aspect of the film and it’s not something we’re used to seeing in a Hollywood picture.
What then follows is a procedural film following the lead analyst, Maya (Jessica Chastain), as she follows a single lead for a decade, facing setback after setback but growing consistently obsessive in her pursuit of bin Laden. Watching this part of the film reminded me of David Fincher’s modern masterpiece Zodiac but sadly without that film’s entertainment value. The beauty of Kathryn Bigelow’s style is that she doesn’t add any emotion to the proceedings. There is a lack of any sympathy or feeling throughout the entire film; the characters are not written for the audience to care about when they die, they just die and the story moves on. In one way, this is a refreshing take and the lack of sentimentality is what the film is all about, but is it entertaining to watch for a sustained period of time? Not so much. Moreover, although the film is about the hunt for one man and the true value of the mission and the billions of dollars spent on it, there doesn’t end up being a real point to the film. We know how it ends and we know bin Laden was a real threat, unlike, say, the search for WMDs, but the thrill of watching the story unfold is not there.
The second front on which the film both delights and slightly disappoints is the final 40 minutes where we see the assault on bin Laden’s hideout. As a piece of filmmaking it is near-perfection and easily one of the most impressive scenes of 2012; it’s as tense as anything you could hope to see, even though we know how it will end, and looks as realistic as any modern military operation seen on film. The POV shots of night-vision goggles are not used as a gimmick and take us right into the heart of the scene, and the lighting (or lack of) of the night is something to behold as we so rarely see a near-pitch black mise en scène.
The problem is that the scene presents such a shift in tone and style it feels like it belongs in a different film entirely. The procedural film which leads to this has not warranted such a tense and dramatic finale, regardless of how good it is. Until this point, the film has been all about Maya and her obsession, but now the film shifts perspective from her to a group of soldiers we know nothing about. Although we appreciate that the reality was indeed that the detective and analytical work was done by Maya and the soldiers are the men who pulled the triggers, the inclusion of this extended part of the story feel unbalanced. In a film like Green Zone it would fit right in, but here I’d have preferred to see the scene from Maya’s POV just watching on a screen, not knowing how the event really went down. As technically brilliant as the sequence is, the success of it within the film feels somewhat strained.
Despite these criticisms, Zero Dark Thirty remains one of the best films of 2012 because of the craftsmanship Bigelow brings to her work. Individually, the various parts which make the whole are excellent, but they don’t quite come together to equal a truly satisfying picture.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★