Review: Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

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DIRECTOR: Kathryn Bigelow.

CAST: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Joel Edgerton, Jennifer Ehle, Mark Strong, Kyle Chandler, Chris Pratt, Mark Duplass, Harold Perrineau, Edgar Ramirez, James Gandolfini.

SYNOPSIS: Following the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001, CIA operative Maya (Chastain) starts a resolute pursuit of Osama Bin Laden, the man behind countless Al Qaeda acts of destruction. After years of searching, a new lead comes to light in 2011 that may finally help her get her man.

American cinema has a habit of skewing history in its favour – Pearl Harbor, anyone? But though Zero Dark Thirty starts with a heartbreaking American phone call, the splicing of footage and news from around the world ensures that its devastation is felt intimately by everyone.

With tension and a definite sense of direction lacking, the majority of the first third is a major disappointment that even presents Mark Strong as a little shaky, clashing with the finale’s breathtaking raid scene which is pulled off without any embellishments or unnecessary dialogue. But this isn’t to say that scenes featuring crowded marketplaces are tension free and, though urgency feels lacking, once Maya digs her heels in, her determination ripples through both colleagues and audience.

With only Jessica (an incredibly likeable Jennifer Ehle) for female company, we are kept far-removed from Maya’s home life and past, with a tease about a potential blossoming romance given a thankful wide berth. Though it is obvious she isn’t the easiest to work with, she never appears overly incensed and scriptwriter Mark Boal allows her the odd moment of comedy to represent her frustration at the monotony of her situation.

But these comic streaks are a rarity in a film that deals with torture and international politics. With Obama pretty much steered clear of (even if a presidential cover-up is not so subtly hinted at), it’s unfair to say Bigelow is using her film as a pro-torture banner when it is so focused on the pursuit of one man instead of the bigger picture. However, though the film’s 15 certificate makes the violence feel very underplayed, it is never glamorised – even if it does preserve a palpable ounce of sympathy for those under the microscope.

As we jump through Maya’s timeline (assisted by chapters that work as a very nifty framework), the woman who was distressed by what she initially witnessed eventually comes to realise that treating her suspects mean is the only way to retrieve her answers. But it is in these scenes of persecution that the ever-brilliant Jason Clarke highlights why he should be far more than just a reliable supporting man. And, though once again accentuating what an extremely versatile and fierce talent she is, Chastain is haunted by the gaping hole that is left in Clarke’s absence.

Though the Oscar-nominated actress may feel less memorable than those around her, it is Bin Laden who is thankfully relegated to nothing more than a fragment of a face. So unwilling are Bigelow and Boal to make the slightest hint at martyrdom, Bin Laden’s presence merely translates as a memory, begging the question of whether this story needed to be told at all.

For all Maya’s drive, Zero Dark Thirty is not about personal vendetta. It is an education in how easily Bin Laden could have slipped through the net had one person’s efforts never been fully realised. Yet for all its technical brilliance, it never escapes from the fact it cannot glorify its big moment in fear of accusations regarding too much patriotism or lingering too long on its central villain.


Zero Dark Thirty is released in UK cinemas on 25th January.

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