How is the most wanted man on Earth caught? On a hunch, according to Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow’s latest effort, chronicling the manhunt to find Osama Bin Laden after 9/11. The story is told through the eyes of Maya (Jessica Chastain) a CIA operative who has spent her career on the trail of Bin Laden. When I say through her eyes, I mean it. Other characters drift in and out of the narrative, but this is Chastain’s show, and she does an excellent job of basically shouldering the weight of much of the film herself.
Although Chastain shines, she is one of maybe three memorable characters in the whole movie. While obviously the intent, as this is her story, the lack of secondary characterisation still hurts the film, with generic CIA agents and higher ups being traded through the run time on a sort of conveyer belt of bland characters. Even Chastain’s character, while brilliantly portrayed, is still relatively uninteresting. The only thing that we ever see of her is her work. The reason for this is obvious, as she serves to guide the narrative, and diving into her personal life is hardly relevant to the manhunt, but it also de-humanises the film somewhat.
Where the clinical approach pays off is in the torture and action scenes. Regarding the torture scenes, they’re neither exploitative nor shirk away from the issue at all. It would have been easy to leave these sequences out, and just have the CIA hunting Bin Laden, climaxing in a patriotic chest-beating “GO ‘MURICA!” raid on his compound. Bigelow chooses to leave them in and lets the audience make up its own mind about whether the use of torture was vindicated or not.
The action set-pieces, particularly a car bombing and the raid on Bin Laden’s compound at the end of the film, really stand out. They’re expertly crafted and relentlessly ramp up the tension throughout, before having an excellent climax. The raid on the compound is chillingly done, with much of it being from the perspective of night vision goggles, and looks fantastic. Even here Bigelow doesn’t sentimentalize, and the Navy Seals are portrayed less like conquering heroes and more like professionals doing what’s required of them.
Zero Dark Thirty, technically, is an excellent film. It’s well made, shot and acted, with some brilliant action sequences and a fascinating look at the behind the scenes of the most famous manhunt ever. However, the film lacks heart, remaining cold and clinical throughout in the interests of maintaining accuracy. While this decision is understandable, and even commendable, the hunt for a terrorist responsible for the deaths of 3,000 innocent people should be able to make an audience feel something more than cold detachment.
Paul O Donoghue