Published Thursday, 31 January 2013
This gripping thriller, based on first hand accounts of real events, reveals the ten year story behind the US government's greatest manhunt, to find and eliminate Osama Bin Laden. Leading the charge is a flame haired agent, Maya, brilliantly played by the new leading lady of Hollywood, Jessica Chastain.
We begin with a black screen and a caption boldly stating "September 11, 2001". We hear the distressing audio of those caught up in the devastating attack on the World Trade Centre. Director Bigelow bravely keeps us in the dark, allowing us to conjure up those unforgettable images of the twin towers while listening to the horror. How many other mainstream filmmakers would have the courage to do this?
Bigalow then takes us straight to the sharp end of the CIA's uncompromising search for Bin Laden. From Afghanistan to Warsaw, we follow Maya to 'black sites' where suspected al-Qaeda detainees are ruthlessly interrogated. Chief inquisitor is the wild eyed and bushy bearded Dan (played by Jason Clarke). He brutalises, humiliates and waterboards his prisoners. "In the end everybody breaks" he tells one bloodied captive "It's biology".
These graphic scenes of torture are undoubtedly shocking and highly controversial. The film has been accused of glorifying this inhumane violence and even endorsing its ultimate use. I found these scenes hard-hitting and repulsive, which I think was the point.
The pursuit of Bin Laden would eventually become a lost cause after a decade of blind alleys and dead ends. But if torture or technology couldn't find him, then maybe a woman's intuition could. Maya refuses to give up the ghost, despite being shot at, blown up and losing her friends in the fight. "I'm going to smoke everyone involved in this op and then I'm going to kill Bin Laden" she declares.
"No boyfriend?" asks her CIA colleague Jessica (played by Jennifer Ehle) "Have you got any friends at all?" Maya shakes her head. She remains an enigma as director Bigelow chooses not to bore us with a backstory or an emotional family sub-plot.
There are only flashes of a life outside of the hunt. On her computer desktop we see the fleeting image of her smiling with a young girl. Is it her daughter? Her sister? It doesn't matter, Maya is a woman on a mission, and only when that is completed will a normal life resume.
There are very few female characters like this in Hollywood movies.
Ably supporting Chastain are a great cast including Mark Strong, James Gandolfini and, most incredibly, John Barrowman! His surprise straight-faced cameo at the CIA top table provoked an unexpected chuckle.
But Zero Dark Thirty (aka half past midnight) is a serious tour de force by Bigelow. The last thirty minutes recreating the nighttime assault on Bin Laden's compound is jaw-dropping. Following on from the great acclaim of The Hurt Locker, Bigalow's shaky cam and tough talking characters once again take us to the dark side of modern warfare.
Zero Dark Thirty (Cert 15) is now on general release.