Director: Kathryn Bigelow; Cast: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Reda Kateb, Jeremy Strong, Harold Perrineau, Joel Edgerton, Chris Pratt; Running time: 157 minutes; Certification: 15
In May 2011, Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal were half way through writing a script depicting America’s hunt for Osama Bin Laden when a team of Navy Seals infiltrated his hideout in Pakistan and shot him dead. To some, this would have presented a problem; to Bigelow and Boal, it presented a brand new third act that would end up being one of the best things Bigelow has ever filmed.
But let’s begin at the beginning. The tone of the piece – dark, grimy and unsettling – is plastered right from the very first frame; or before the first frame, in fact, as a spiral of 911 calls made during the 9/11 attacks crackle over a black screen. It’s a haunting way to begin, and it’s certainly effective in placing the audience in the right frame of mind for the following two and a bit hours, which, quite frankly, get even darker. Greig Fraser’s murky cinematography mirrors this throughout, and interestingly, something which Mark Kermode mentioned but I hadn’t picked up on, the screen actually seems to get physically darker and darker as the film wears on and events become deeper and more dangerous, becoming virtually pitch black by the end. Whether this was intentional or not, I certainly think it subtly, or perhaps even subconsciously, manipulates the audience’s perception of the events on screen.
The first two thirds, riddled with shocking moments and hard-hitting dialogue, chronicle the search. Numerous names pop up throughout, including Mark Strong, Kyle Chandler and Joel Edgerton, all of whom do what they have to do perfectly well, but it is Jessica Chastain who really stands out here. Portraying Maya, a relentless government agent who is growing increasingly frustrated by the lack of progress being made, she expertly provides the strong and troubled emotional core that the film stands on. Occasionally there’s a joke or two to try and break the solemnity and give us some breathing room, but there really isn’t much mood-lightening. You’ll have to be prepared for a dark experience. All of which gradually leads into the silent, dark and brilliantly intense third act, which shows the team of Navy Seals infiltrate Bin Laden’s hideout. (No this is not a spoiler, unless you haven’t been paying attention to the news for the last few years). The fact that we already know what happens doesn’t affect our enjoyment of it at all. Like with any great film that’s based on a true story, it’s not necessarily about the end, but about how we get there. I knew full well what was going to happen, but I was still on the edge of my seat.
The film is shrouded in controversy due to the scenes of torture depicted quite viscerally throughout. Many people seem to think it is somehow creating propaganda by gratifying or condoning it, but that’s not what’s happening at all. Regardless of your views on torture, these scenes are absolutely applicable to the narrative, and what Bigelow is actually doing is creating an argumentative environment whereby she feeds us all the necessary information but doesn’t dictate how we digest it. Which leads me into what I find most impressive about the film: Bigelow’s confidence behind the camera. Every shot, every camera movement, every line of dialogue, even every crack of ambiance, feels necessary. She completely dominates every scene yet never imposes. Even the script is incredibly tight and assured, somehow fitting ten years into just over two hours without feeling rushed or like there’s anything missing. It’s a benchmark in confident, refined filmmaking, and she has been unfairly overlooked by the Academy this year (as have so many others – Affleck, Tarantino, Mendes). I suppose there are only so many places to be filled.
Zero Dark Thirty is another triumph from Bigelow. Even though by the end it still feels like there’s a further step to be taken, this is really compelling stuff and well worth your time.