To quote the legendary Col. Kilgore of Apocalypse Now: ‘Charlie don’t surf’. Zero Dark Thirty, with its unflinching depiction of waterboarding and torture, doesn’t take matters so lightly. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow, winner of Best Film and Best Director at the Oscars for her last visit to the Gulf in The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty is a bold, challenging film that does so much more than just a shootout in a Palestine compound.
Ostensibly a film about the hunt for the world’s (former) most famous terrorist, it centers on CIA Agent Maya and the boys club she drags with her in her decade-long pursuit. Strikingly cold and objective in its portrayal of the often unethical means used to track down Osama Bin Laden, it poses serious questions about the American military and the war on terror; and doesn’t always show them in the best light. Whereas a blockbuster Hollywood production might have celebrated the triumphs of finally nailing the century’s biggest bad guy, this is much more morally ambiguous. The Americans are the ‘good guys’, but its only relative.
It’s almost documentary-esque in how strictly factual it’s approach is and this has upset many, particularly the silence regarding the highly controversial torture scenes. Many have taken issue with the fact that, although displayed in a manner meant to shock and appall the viewer, these methods are always shown to be successful and there’s nary a hint of an apology. There’s no repercussions, no fallout, no mistakes. It’s just them getting the job done.
No one is more committed to the job than Maya, portrayed by Hollywood’s resident driven female lead Jessica Chastain. Her performance ties the films together and, though it’s difficult to truly sympathise with her you nonetheless become swept up in her hunt. Only at the end, in a final scene with shades of The Graduate, do you start to see a different side and it was only then that I started to see some of the hype surrounding her performance. It’s subtle, nuanced and relentlessly driven, which is exactly what the film needs at its core. This is especially the case since supporting characters rotate in and out of relevance like a CIA merry-go-round, which jarringly contains Cpt. Jack Harkness amid a sea of serious suit types whose screen time probably only combines to about 45 minutes. It’s honestly not even worth discussing anyone beyond Maya, such is the degree to which the film focuses upon her.
Maya may lack the psychological complexity and human toll seen in The Hurt Locker, but the direction and narrative put Bigelow’s previous effort to shame, making it all the more astonishing that she was passed over at the Oscars. The raid itself is truly a masterpiece of direction. Brilliantly paced, it ekes out every last drop of tension from every door breaching and room clearing and makes those 15 minutes feel like an eternity. All in spite of the fact that we already know the outcome. It stands as one of the finest ‘action’ sequences in history, though that term is really very loose. There’s no Michael Bay pyrotechnics or slow-mo, just the same reserved military precision that defines the rest of the film. Cold, calculating and uncompromisingly efficient, the scene, and the rest of the film, feel like they could almost have been directed by Maya so closely do they mirror her style.
Bold and unconventional in its approach, there’s widespread division over whether Bigelow’s dead-eyed glimpse of ‘enhanced’ interrogation techniques and unflinching killing was brave or cowardly. I personally prefer it minus the moralising, it fits the tone and style of the film and its characters but this is an issue that just boils down to opinion. Regardless of moral qualms it makes for compelling, propulsive, thought-provoking cinema from film’s foremost military dramatist. It’s all but impossible to separate from The Hurt Locker in terms of quality but Zero Dark, for the raid scene alone, may well edge it.