As the lights go down for Zero Dark Thirty, nothing comes up on the big screen. Over a blacked-out image, we hear police calls and radio chatter from 9/11. It’s an effective, if not exactly original tactic for bringing us back into that world of terror and vengeance for the innocents killed on that day.
At the first of several classified locations over the years that follow, we are introduced to Maya (Jessica Chastain), a CIA operative assisting in the torture of Al-Qaeda associates in the wake of the terrorist attacks. Her goal is solely to track down Osama Bin Laden, primarily targeting the paper trail from 9/11 which leads back to Abu Ahmed, Bin Laden’s personal courier.
Playing out over nearly a decade, Zero Dark Thirty charts Maya’s investigation, its successes, pitfalls and red herrings – as well as Al-Qaeda’s subsequent attacks – right up to the discovery of Bin Laden’s hideout, and the SEAL Team Six assault on it in May 2011.
Paced like a police procedural drama, but with the soul and redemption of the United States on the line, Zero Dark Thirty maintains attention and interest throughout. It is, however, due to the mass media reporting of the events within it, utterly predictable from start to finish. Because of this, director Kathryn Bigelow, whose previous film The Hurt Locker was one of the most nail-bitingly tense cinematic experiences of the past 50 years, is never able to raise that kind tension from her latest project. Even one scene not widely reported in media, where an Al-Qaeda defector is brought to a CIA stronghold, fails to up the tension due to dialogue cues telegraphing the trajectory of the scene.
But while these elements work against Zero Dark Thirty, it is undeniably a finely crafted film. Tightly shot and edited, with a great score by Alexandre Desplat that always suits the locations and atmosphere, Bigelow’s film rolls steadily along thanks to Mark Boal’s deeply technical and well-researched script that balances tradecraft talk with flippant everyday language. “This is what defeat looks like, bro,” torture expert Dan (Jason Clarke) tells his victim to break him down. “Your jihad is over.”
The film never shies away from the dark realities of the manhunt, including some deeply unpleasant waterboarding sequences. But the realities of this torture seem hard to dispute and while the techniques are effective, Boal’s script never seems in favour of what is happening. Horror is met with further horror, and everyone suffers, even the surprisingly fragile torturers.
Chastain reveals herself once more to be one of the finest performers in American cinema today, capturing a character full of determination and loneliness. Her face displays her distaste for torture when she first witnesses it, but her voice is insistent when she says she won’t wait outside. Maya’s descent into hell for the love of her job is the cornerstone of the film, and Chastain carries this flawlessly as her obsession with her work drives her closer to both despair and her goal.
The supporting players are mostly strong, with Clarke, Kyle Chandler and Jennifer Ehle all carrying their scenes appropriately. Only a brief cameo by James Gandolfini seems out of place, and somewhat unsuitable to the seriousness of the material. A temporary lull in the film’s midsection is interrupted gloriously by Mark Strong’s sudden bursting into the movie with a scenery-inhaling performance as a top-tier CIA honcho with a zero tolerance for bullshit.
Zero Dark Thirty never releases you from its grip, but the hold certainly loosens in the final act as the Navy SEALs make their play on the Bin Laden compound. An early set-back that seems overtly fictional is followed by the infiltration of the main building by a team of soldiers vastly outmanning and outgunning the terrorists within. It’s a superb reconstruction, but it is hardly a thrilling action sequence – more high-class documentary than Die Hard. Afterwards, the film’s final shot, a suitable catharsis, is one that has become a cliché of the modern spy movie genre, used repeatedly before in TV series such as 24 and Homeland. It’s hard not to feel that the reality was simply never as exciting as the fiction.
Still, Zero Dark Thirty is an excellent record of the secret takedown of a real-life supervillain, and the pacing and direction are overshadowed only by the film’s central performance. It is a worthy and timely piece of historical re-enactment, with plenty to say about the post-9/11 world and America’s role in it.