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Zero Dark Thirty – film review

January 18, 2013

ZERO DARK THIRTY

Reviewed on Thursday 13th December 2012

zero dark thirty

Directed by Kathryn Bigelow. Written by Mark Boal. Starring: Jessica Chastain, Chris Pratt, Kyle Chandler, Édgar Ramírez, Joel Edgerton, Mark Strong, Scott Adkins, Ricky Sekhon, Taylor Kinney, Chris Pratt, Jason Clarke, Jennifer Ehle, Mark Duplass, Frank Grillo and Stephen Dillane. Running time: 157 mins.

I have long been a fan of Kathryn Bigelow’s gritty brand of kick-ass action since Near Dark, her first feature as solo director back in 1987. In the years which have followed, I found myself looking forward to each new film of hers with increasing anticipation.

Zero Dark Thirty (a military term for 30 minutes after midnight and the exact time the Navy SEAL team breached the bin Laden compound) originally began life as a project entitled Kill Bin Laden –  the story of a failed 2001 attempt to capture or kill Osama Bin Laden in the Tora Bora region on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Coincidentally, on May 1st 2011, while Boal and Bigelow were in the midst of researching their film in Afghanistan, Navy SEAL Team Six (the very same SEAL team Boal was gleaning information from) staged a surprise raid to kill bin Laden in neighboring Pakistan. Realizing their project was now redundant, the filmmakers decided to rewrite it from scratch and tell instead the complete story behind the locating of bin Laden and the subsequent raid on his Pakistani compound in Abottabad, leading to his ultimate demise.

The movie opens in black, overwhich we hear what I’m guessing are actual recordings of phone calls from people trapped inside the twin towers and emergency services’ radio transmissions during the September 11 attacks. There are no shots of planes hitting buildings, people leaping to their deaths, the towers collapsing. And nor does there need to be. The audio of these events is enough to express the tragedy of that terrible day, without resorting to sensationalism.

‘Without resorting to sensationalism’ – this, as it turns out, is the modus operandi of the entire movie – particularly with the ending – but we’ll get to that.

The film has often been described as a police procedural – albeit on a much grander scale – and this is pretty much an accurate summation of the tone of the piece. Our main protagonist is Maya, a head-strong investigator for the CIA, who makes it her decade-long quest to hunt down and take out Osama Bin Laden (OBL).

zero dark thirty jessica chastain

Best known for her exploration of balls-to-the-wall male machismo, with testosterone-fuelled action-suspense thrillers like Point Break and The Hurt Locker to her credit, Bigelow hasn’t often had the opportunity of developing a female lead protagonist like Jessica Chastain’s Maya. Interestingly she is only Bigelow’s third female lead since Jamie Lee Curtis in Blue Steel in 1989 and Catherine McCormack in 2000’s The Weight Of Water. And Chastain is eminantly watchable as we watch her character (based on a real person) develop over the ten year period it takes to find bin Laden. The scene where she lets go her pent-up frustrations at her boss Joseph Bradley (Kyle Chandler) for taking her off the case is a performance worthy of an Oscar.

Accusations of glorifying torture have been levelled at the film regarding particular scenes involving aussie actor Jason Clarke (who is excellent by the way) as a CIA interrogator seen waterboarding a suspect at a CIA ‘black site’. However, if these detractors go back and have a closer look at what transpires in the movie – they     will find that these ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ do not actually produce any useable evidence and it is only when the Dan character sits down with the detainee over lunch in a civilized manner, that the suspect willingly divulges accurate information. So to say this film glorifies waterboarding doesn’t actually hold true   under closer scrutiny.

As with The Hurt Locker and K 19: The Widowmaker. Bigelow’s sense of verisimilitude is much in evidence here. These locations feel like real                       places with real people and, most importantly – real danger.

Bigelow’s technique of using multiple cameras to cover scenes places the audience firmly within the action. The Hurt Locker in particular is the closest thing to immersive cinema – short of using Digital 3D – I think I have ever experienced. And Bigelow once again recreates this feeling effortlessly here.

Much like Bigelow and Boal’s previous outing, there is no political agenda here.         In fact, Zero Dark Thirty could easily be considered as being politically neutral.

The raid itself is very well staged. Although, perhaps due to political considerations (and rightly so) the fact the White House were looking on as the events unfolded (in real time) is never alluded to.

zero dark thirty - seal team six

The actual killing of Bin Laden occurs without fanfare (literally) and is understated almost to the point of being anti-climactic. He never speaks. There are no close ups of his face. He isn’t even mentioned by name after he is shot – only by his code name – Geronimo. It’s as if the filmmakers have consciously (and once again rightly so) avoided anything crass or gratuitous which would overtly disrespect Bin Laden in the eyes of his supporters in any way, thus inflaming an already volatile relationship between the US and its detractors.

No, this movie is more about the journey – and not the destination.

The lensing by Australian cinematographer Greig Fraser (Snow White And The Huntsman, Let Me In) is a combination of locked-off beauty shots and hand-held cinema verite-style during the more frenetic scenes. However, the annoying ‘shaky-cam’ style which seems to be getting more and more out of control with each new action picture is mercifully absent here – as is the seizure-inducing trend of stroboscopic editing. Bigelow is too good a filmmaker to need to resort to these cheap tricks when staging action scenes.

If I have one criticism of the film it would be that I personally found the the first hour or so somewhat difficult to follow at times, which is perhaps more to do with my own unfamiliarity with Middle-Eastern monikers than with any deficiency in the actual story-telling. However, once the chase settles on OBL’s courier, the plot becomes much clearer and rockets along at a breath-taking pace to its ultimately satisfying conclusion.

THE HURT LOCKER

Kathryn Bigelow

The filmmakers’ sensitive handling of what in lesser hands could easily be a highly inflammatory exercise shows they have the deepest respect for the sensitivities of the Muslim world and it is for this reason Bigelow and Boal and everyone involved should be highly commended.

Zero Dark Thirty is a taut and pacey thriller, a worthy follow-up to The Hurt Locker and one of the best films of the year.

4.5 stars out of 5

Star ratings: 1 – poor / 2 – below average / 3 – good / 4 – excellent / 5 – unmissable

Viewed at the Palace-Nova East End Cinemas, Adelaide, December 13th 2012.

Greg Moss is a film school graduate with a background in directing music videos and is currently seeking representation as a screenwriter. He likes right-brained people, feeding the cat and watching genre movies.

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4 Comments
  1. Excellent write up as always Greg. Seeing this sometime soon I hope. I watched the ‘Seal Team Six’ something or other recently, which was good but a made for tv movie I believe, without half the money and stars this one has in it. 🙂

  2. gregory moss permalink

    Cheers Tyson. I had my reservations going in – hoping it wouldn’t be a glorification of the event. Turns out my fears were unjustified. I should’ve known really. Bigelow is an underrated talent for sure. 🙂

    • Alright seen this now, and whilst I decide whether to review or not I’ll say this. Clarke was incredible!!! Loved him in Brotherhood, and great to see him with a big role. I really didn’t like Chastain though, and if Rooney Mara hadn’t dropped out, I feel she would of been better. 🙂

      • gregory moss permalink

        Hey Tyson! Yeah Clarke is pretty good, huh? I’m sure we’ll be seeing a lot more of him in future. I thought Chastain was excellent in this. Not so hot on Rooney Mara. Sure, she’s got looks – but I’m not so certain she’d be right for this role. I am real keen to check out Brotherhood though! 🙂

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