The fallout of the September 11th attacks have created a mixed bag in the cinema world. Dramas that focus on smaller, family stories (World Trade Centre, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close) have sat awkwardly alongside sprawling political thrillers and combat films (Green Zone, The Hurt Locker). What Kathryn Bigelow achieves with Zero Dark Thirty is something altogether grander. An intense character study wrapped in a detective story disguised as a political thriller. She shuns conventional wisdom regarding pacing and utilises the near three-hour running time to carefully and succinctly lay out one of the greatest man-hunts of all time.
Zero Dark Thirty depicts the attack on the world trade centre by not visually depicting it at all. The film opens a title card of the famous date after which the screen remains black and the audio track is filled with frightened 911 callers. By resisting the urge to show the famous proverbial “money shot” of the towers crumbling, thereby buying audience sympathy for her manhunters right away, Bigelow and co. demonstrate an even hand that will guide the rest of the narrative. In condensing nearly ten years of international police work, the film makers wisely move quickly through the first few years before slowing events down as the search nears conclusion – the infamous compound assault unfolding in real time.
The film gives equal screen time to the arduous paper-work side of the job as it does to its tense action set pieces, with the office work being presented in such un-glamourous detail not seen since David Fincher’s Zodiac. The similarities between the two films do not end there, however, as Maya’s (Jessica Chastain) infatuation with closing the file on Bin Laden mirrors Robert Graysmith’s (Jake Gyllenhaal) quest to see the Zodiac killer brought to justice. Both protagonists’ private lives are gradually eroded by their reflective obsessions.
The pressure-cooker style that Bigelow perfected in her previous directorial outing is on display again here in several scenes. A meeting with double agents gets the heart racing and the inherently tedious process of tracking phone calls becomes a nail-biting exercise in suspense. The sequences of tension are married with genuine plot development, with characters chasing leads, discarding red herrings, and enjoying satisfying eureka moments, calling on a rich heritage of cinematic detective stories.
Chastain gives a compelling performance in what is ostensibly a typical male role and she avoids the usual cliches of being a woman in a man’s world by instilling Maya with a dogged single-mindedness that leaves gender stereotypes aside. The thorny political issue of state-sanctioned torture is presented in a matter-of-fact fashion, the film leaving the judgement of the act up to the audience. Maya’s attitude to the subject is shown to evolve from mild disgust to grim acceptance of its necessity as events progress, adding extra subtleties to her performance. The supporting cast do their best to keep up, with the only missteps being the famous faces peppered amongst Seal Team Six. Joel Edgerton and the obscenely out-of-place Chris Pratt are clearly there to add some sheen to the advertising campaign; unknowns in these roles would have been far more effective.
Controversy continues to rage over the fact versus the fiction, but the film will hopefully stand alone, indifferent to the current media furore. On its own merits Zero Dark Thirty is a taut, unapologetic thriller, boasting a strong central performance and a stark realism usually lacking from Hollywood fare in this field.
– Tom Roe