After the success of Best Picture winner The Hurt Locker, it made perfect sense for director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal to continue in the same vein as this intense, highly realistic war epic, their original intention being to portray the failed attack on Osama bin Laden in 2001. When news came in 2011, however, that soldiers had actually managed to kill and capture bin Laden at his residence in Pakistan, Bigelow realised that a completely new film would have to be created, one that chronicled the ten years leading up to this historic moment. They shelved the original script, started again from scratch, and the result, just 18 months after the raid itself, is Zero Dark Thirty.

Bigelow has said in interviews that what she was attempting was a journalistic, procedural approach to film, and this is certainly true of Zero Dark Thirty. Events on-screen are (one has to assume) strictly fact-based and, more importantly, un-biased; this is the right way to shoot a modern war movie, with the opinions of the film-makers left back at the office. That being said, ZDT is a lot more interesting as a story than it is gripping. To those without a detailed knowledge of the inner-workings of the CIA, younger members of the audience especially, much of the plot will be unknown, and ignoring some of the more overly-dramatised portions, the film could almost be viewed as a documentary.

The problem is that ZDT tries to cover too much in such a short space of time: ten whole years in just over two and a half hours, particularly with the amount of detail that the script has to communicate. There are moments, the London bus bombing and the explosion at the Islamabad hotel especially, that are only briefly touched upon – there is simply too much going on and it becomes hard at times to assess the impact that these kinds of events had on the operation itself.

The performances are what hold it all together. Jessica Chastain is incredible as Maya (whose real life counterpart remains undercover); her previous on-screen appearances in Lawless and The Tree of Life don’t do her talent enough justice. She carries the lead role with such an unemotional determination interspersed with moments of lightness and alacrity that it’s clear to see why she earned the Oscar nomination (although her resemblance to Claire Danes’ character in Homeland is unfortunate, minus the occasional bout of psychosis). Jason Clarke also gives a surprising performance as a tough, but friendly CIA operative and the appearance of Mark Strong is a delight as always.

For those unaware of the controversy surrounding ZDT, several critics have argued that its depiction of torture (and there’s a lot of it) is not only unnecessary to the narrative, but actually an endorsement; ‘pro-torture’ is the phrase being thrown around. At the start of the film, Ammar, a captive with supposed terrorist contacts, is subjected to beatings, waterboarding and is forced into a small box – it’s horrible to watch, but it in no way endorses torture. This brings us back to Bigelow’s idea of a ‘journalistic’ approach to film; it’s made clear that the CIA do not take any pleasure in these interrogations but the film remains neutral in what it shows to the audience and the torture is neither approved of nor condemned – it’s merely part of the story.

The last act, however, is where it all comes together. The raid on bin Laden’s hideout in the early hours of the morning (zero dark thirty, to be precise) is reminiscent of some of the tenser scenes from The Hurt Locker and is such a brilliantly compelling piece of film-making that it’s difficult to look away. Obviously the audience knows the outcome (apologies to anyone living under a rock), but it’s how the soldiers actually carry out the covert op that makes it so fascinating. Zero Dark Thirty may not be as perfect as Bigelow’s previous effort, but it comes very close; it’s masterful, analytical and a fresh and impressive contribution to its genre.

Felix Taylor

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6 Comments

  1. Daniel
    January 28, 2013 at 15:31 — Reply

    The point is not that it’s pro-torture but that it portrays torture as helping the CIA to gain vital information, which is simply untrue. There is no evidence to show that any information gained through torture helped in the killing of Bin Laden

  2. Mathieu
    January 29, 2013 at 09:12 — Reply

    I second Daniel. A movie that sets itself as un-biased cannot mess with facts and hope to get away with it. The simple idea of being un-biased (especially in such a heavily ideologically charged topic as torture) is either ridiculously naïve or downright misleading. What Bigelow does, and what she did in Hurt Locker as well, is pure American military propaganda. Yes, she might be partially critiquing some aspects of the institution, but overall, her advocacy of violence for the sake of security, and here, the use of torture as legitimized by the information gained in the process, is the same propagandist attempt as what a show like 24 offers. Torture did not bring American militaries any valid information (for the simple fact that anybody would claim anything under torture) and claiming that it did is being biased. It is propaganda and it is pro-torture.
    Other than that, the movie looks pretty good (which one might argue is another issue, in that it is so entertaining and well made that one forgets what one is watching and what one is ultimately agreeing with)

  3. Felix
    January 29, 2013 at 18:14 — Reply

    I understand what both of you are saying, but I don’t actually think that Bigelow meant for the torture scenes to be seen as the key to finding bin Laden. What I got from ZDT was that only after the torture was stopped did they make any significant progress (in the film, the prisoner gives up the information when having lunch with Maya) – it would seem that torture has little relevance to the actual story, but I would argue that it certainly has relevance in terms of portraying the extremes to which the CIA were willing to go, even if nothing came of it. In those ten years, torture was an undeniable presence and just because it wasn’t directly part of the hunt for bin Laden, it doesn’t mean that it should have been completely ignored.
    (Apologies – I should have addressed this more in the review..)

  4. Tuhin
    January 29, 2013 at 19:18 — Reply

    Good review Felix, you’re right that the torure never leads to any discovery of Bin Laden in the film though I would say that there aren’t many moments of lightness and the film feels like a heavy documentary and lags for the whole second act. Probably because we’ve seen this obsessed protagonist many times before and not much stands out aside from the final raid- shot with such frightening precision and that cool burkha clad army assault which we already saw in the trailer.

  5. Daniel
    January 30, 2013 at 16:16 — Reply

    I agree that it needed to be portrayed but I think as seen when one of the prisoner states “I don’t want to be tortured again, I’ll tell you what I know”, or something to that effect, the film does, perhaps unintentionally portray torture as having acheived some results. I’d also wouldn’t call it a documentary or strictly fact-based, They changed alot of details for the sake of narrative, IE the Camp Champman attack had nothing to do with the search for Bin Laden. Not that I think it’s necessarily a bad thing just don’t believe everything you see in the movie. Having said this I really enjoyed the movie and your review as well, I’m just nitpicking really

  6. Alexander Fitzgerald
    February 12, 2013 at 12:28 — Reply

    Excellent review.

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