Zero Dark Thirty is “the story of history’s greatest manhunt for the world’s most dangerous man,” chronicling as it does the search by the United States of America for their ‘Most Wanted’ Osama Bin Laden. Following on from director Kathryn Bigelow’s 2009 Oscar-winning film The Hurt Locker, about bomb disposal experts in Iraq, Zero Dark Thirty shows a growing interest in US foreign affairs of the modern era.
Yound CIA operative Maya (Jessica Chastain) is brought on to the team charged with finding the whereabouts of Al-Quaeda’s top generals, notably its leader Osama Bin Laden. She is exposed to torture techniques from the outset and slowly becomes obsessed with the mission. As she becomes more strung-out through stress and the lack of a personal life, Maya discovers leads that bring the US Government to discover the possible location of Bin Laden and she must convince her superiors to risk entering the compound before it’s too late.
Directed by Oscar-winner Kathryn Bigelow, Zero Dark Thirty as a title refers to the military term for 30 minutes after midnight, the time at which the team of Navy Seals entered Bin Laden’s compound and alludes to the secrecy that shrouds the CIA teams covert operations. The opening scenes including US operatives torturing Al-Queada suspects actually represent the films lowest points. With the television show Homeland covering similar ground Bigelow packs the opening exchanges with military jargon and less-than-stunning shots. In fact, like the start of television show, this appears to be a cheap attempt not only to grab the audiences attention, but to prove the films credentials in terms of accuracy. This proves unnecessary and misjudged, but it doesn’t take long for Zero Dark Thirty to recover, and then, it soars.
Supported by an excellent cast including Mark Strong, Joel Edgerton, Edgar Ramirez, James Gandolfini and Mark Duplass, it is Jessica Chastain who carries Zero Dark Thirty to truly great heights of drama. While the narrative drives forward at an increasing pace, it is the deterioration of Maya that holds the audiences attention throughout. She is strong-willed, fiery and completely obsessed. Yet it is this complete loyalty to the cause that almost leads to her having a complete breakdown. It’s meaty stuff for an actor to sink their teeth in to and Chastain does not hold back, portraying Maya with a fanaticism that is bound to end in personal disaster.
It takes an impressively made film to cause controversy from both major political parties in the US, yet Zero Dark Thirty managed just that. It was released just before the US Presidential election in 2012, which lead to the Republican Party asserting that it was set to act as a reminder to the general public that President Obama was the man who gave the command to kill Osama Bin Laden. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party asserted that its scenes of torture by Americans on believed members of Al-Queada in some way glorified these immoral methods. Both of these viewpoints are simply posturing as Zero Dark Thirty cleverly avoids stating a political opinion at all. Through Maya the audience witness one woman’s complete obsession with discovering the truth and because she has no other agenda, neither does the film. The torture scenes are harsh and in no way glorify the actions, but reminds us that without these methods, the operation would not have reached the conclusion that it did.
So despite some less-than-spectacular direction in the opening scenes, Zero Dark Thirty builds to a crescendo of tension as the the team finally make their way into the compound that so famously housed Osama Bin Laden. Ostensibly a procedural police drama blown up to national levels, it highlights the confidence with which Bigelow now makes and just what a superb actress Chastain has become.