Zero Dark Thirty
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow
Written by Mark Boal
This years’ Academy Awards are surprisingly history-heavy. Lincoln and Argo are both period pieces telling true stories of widely-recognised and declassified events respectively; whilst Django Unchained is a very Tarantino take on Southern slavery-era America. Zero Dark Thirty is the most historically relevant of the nominees in that the events depicted are still fresh in our memories. Billed as ‘The World’s Greatest Manhunt’, the film chronicles the decade-long search for Osama bin Laden through the eyes of fictional CIA agent Maya (Jessica Chastain), whose descent into obsession with catching her man threatens to jeopardise the case.
The opening moments of the film – in which we hear a terrifying phone call to the emergency services from someone trapped in the World Trade Centre on 11 September 2001 – hint at a nail-biting saga of desperation and fortitude to follow. Unfortunately, the film never lives up to this promise, instead taking a far more corporate approach, much to its detriment.
The controversy facing the film is in all the wrong places. Unlike Bigelow’s previous film, The Hurt Locker – a strong character study with a lot of truth and heart – Zero Dark Thirty is a cold, uninviting procedural anti-drama which relies too heavily on the verbosity of CIA interrogation and moves at a sorely uneven pace. The supposedly ‘pro-torture’ interrogation scenes are not so, they merely depict the reality of America’s brutal patriotic determination. Incidentally, they are among the only scenes in the film where any of the characters show any sign of life – Jason Clarke puts in a good turn as a hostile and unsympathetic officer, whilst Mark Strong’s incensed motivational speech an hour into the film is also notable. Jessica Chastain, however, spends more time in her central role churning out CIA jargon and looking faintly distressed at the sight of torture than she does making us actually believe in Maya.
The direction and cinematography is amiable, but the script – which suffered from multiple changes due to numerous factors, most notably the death of bin Laden (the film was initially about the failed manhunt) – is too data-reliant to interest anyone who isn’t familiar with the inner workings of American Intelligence. The audience is fed names, places, facts and figures which aren’t sufficiently enlightened for those with no knowledge of the case and as a result get left behind. The finale, which portrays the raid at bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad like a Call of Duty mission, is purposefully anticlimactic; the Americans are so visibly worn out by the manhunt that its success feels fruitless. An interestingly cold spin on victory, this threatens to be one of Zero Dark Thirty’s finer moments, however the decline in intrigue over the course of the 2-hours-37-minutes film leads us to feel as empty as the characters about bin Laden’s death; but out of boredom more than anything else.
Overlong and overhyped, Zero Dark Thirty slithers along, supplying the occasional explosion to keep the action fans happy whilst telling a wholly one-sided story that could’ve been interesting had it made any effort to build tension instead of smothering its audience in largely uninspired, arid dialogue. Having characters that we aren’t necessarily supposed to sympathise with is fine. But turning the most famous military exploit of the century into something as insipid as this, is not.