Dir: Kathryn Bigelow
When I look back at Kathryn Bigelow's last film, the Best Picture Oscar winner The Hurt Locker, all I can see now is its opening caption: War is a Drug, which increasingly strikes me as the only thing that overpraised film had to say. That being the case, and given the perhaps even more vociferous praise for this film, I walked into Zero Dark Thirty largely on the promise of two and a half hours of Jessica Chastain and needing to be convinced. I'm convinced.
The story, just in case you need reminding, is that of the hunt for and (spoilers) eventual killing of Osama Bin Laden. Apparently based on eyewitness testimony, there is sure to have been some dramatisation and combining of characters here, but it certainly feels like a film that sticks as closely to the facts as the demands of 150 minutes of cinema will allow.
Let's get the politics out of the way to begin with. I'm what most people would probably describe as pretty far to the left, and I find the use of torture despicable. That said, I really don't have a problem with the way Zero Dark Thirty depicts it and its use, beyond the fact that I wish it had found perhaps five minutes to give us a scene that would acknowledge the practical problems with torture; the false information it frequently produces. That aside, I think the film depicts 'enhanced interrogation' as a sordid business; it doesn't shy away from the brutality and, while it doesn't lean on the point to a preachy degree, it suggests the negative impact it has on the people meting it out. Ultimately, this isn't a morally simplistic film, and even in its greatest and most earned moment of triumph, it doesn't seem to me to go in for jingoism and flag waving.
For me, the film Zero Dark Thirty most closely recalls is David Fincher's masterpiece Zodiac. Like that film, ZDT is a thriller with a problem that seems insoluble; its ending is well known by most if not all of its potential audience, so how does one create suspense when the end result is a foregone conclusion? Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal square this particular circle, as Fincher did, by focusing on detail, drawing out the process in almost unbearable fashion, and by focusing this detail around an outstanding central performance.
Jessica Chastain burst on to the film scene in 2011 with an incredible run of performances (landing an Oscar nomination for, of course, one of her less interesting performances that year). This is quite a change of pace for her; she's played tough before, but few saw her as a cop in Texas Killing Fields, and she's considerably more effective as CIA operative Maya. Chastain's arc is subtly drawn, but she plays it with great conviction, from the young woman whose stomach seems to turn at her first interrogation, we watch as she ages and demonstrably changes over eight years to become a much harder shell, and an immovable object. You have to believe that Maya's pure passion and belief in her lead on a man who may be Bin Laden's courier (a lead that goes cold for years at a time) can make her bosses put their trust in that lead, and Chastain makes you believe it, and believe the process by which Maya comes by that conviction.
Understated would be the wrong word for Kathryn Bigelow's direction, as she has a very identifiable and quite raw style, but as I watched Zero Dark Thirty I seldom found myself thinking about the direction, because for the most part Bigelow manages to put us compellingly in the midst of what's happening, without allowing her shooting (frequently handheld) to call attention to itself and pop us out of the events of the story. This is, of course, also down to her handling of the actors, and while it's sometimes jarring to see recognisable faces (oh, hi John Barrowman), everyone acquits themselves well and plays into the realistic and somewhat downbeat tone that the film pursues. The character actors filling out the supporting cast are a talented bunch, with Jason Clarke as the man who does the dirty work in Maya's early interrogations and Jennifer Ehle as a fellow CIA operative having perhaps the most impactful roles.
Jennifer Ehle's role, through no fault of the underrated actress herself, leads to the only scene in the film that I felt didn't work. The Camp Chapman attack – which was something that I, though I'm sure I'd heard it in the news at the time, had forgotten about and so should have been in the dark as to the outcome of – is the one thing that feels as though it's a scene from a movie. The whole setup, the details, whether they're accurate or not, just seem to scream out contrivance, and signpost what is going to happen. One particular detail, which I can't find any reference for, feels especially risible, and as though it has been inserted for purposes of dramatic irony.
I can forgive the film this minor stumble though, because the rest of it is so good. The procedural elements are all well addressed, and the plot's various connections are easy to follow without feeling dumbed down, or as if you're simply being given a point by point lecture so that you can keep up. More action driven scenes are few and quite far between, but Bigelow executes them with panache. The final incursion in which Bin Laden is killed is a brilliant set piece. Despite a handheld camera and having to follow multiple small teams as they break in at various points, Bigelow manages to keep the geography of the sequence very clear, while also putting us right in the midst of the attack. We know how it's going to end, we even know that no Americans died, and yet you're still on the edge of your seat, largely because the film and Chastain have done such a good job of putting you in Maya's shoes that you're largely seeing this as if from her chair.
There will be many conversations about the politics of Zero Dark Thirty, and people from all over the political spectrum will likely have interesting and relevant things to say about it, but for me it is, ultimately, a thriller set against the background of those political moments and issues that feature in it, and it's one that does its job almost flawlessly.