Today: February 21, 2024

Zero Dark Thirty

In the aftermath of the September 11th terror attacks

In the
aftermath of the September 11th terror attacks on America’s Eastern Seaboard,
an elite team of CIA agents spends the best part of a decade scouring the globe
for the architect of the plot, al-Qaeda’s leader, Osama bin Laden.

Seen through the eyes of one female analyst, Maya (Jessica Chastain), who journeys from
fresh-faced rookie to battle-weary shell, the search for the world’s most
wanted man takes its toll both professionally and personally on the
hunters. As political
administrations change and her colleagues waver uncertainly, only Maya remains
resolute, devoting every waking moment to the hunt, her single-minded tenacity
eventually paying off when she tracks her quarry to a fortified compound in a
Pakistani suburb. But as her
superiors drag their heels, reluctant to order the raid that will eliminate bin
Laden, Maya finds her fight is far from over…

Treading the same ground as the much shorter Codename: Geronimo, Kathryn Bigelow’s tortuous follow-up to
The Hurt Locker throws us straight
in at the deep end. Opening with a
black screen and an audio montage consisting of the final, frantic, doomed
phone calls from people trapped in the stricken World Trade Centre’s Twin
Towers, the film begins proper with Chastain’s Maya arriving at a CIA desert
‘black site’ where she observes her immediate superior Dan (an electric Jason Clarke) interrogate a suspect
with links to al-Qaeda. We watch
with her as Dan questions his prisoner; coaxing, cajoling, brow-beating as he
tries to break him down before escalating to more physical coercion, beating,
water boarding, sexual humiliation, sleep deprivation, Dan constantly telling
his prisoner: “When you lie to me, I hurt you.” It’s a harrowing, disorienting opening, one that leaves you
stunned and addresses right from the start, without ever condemning or
condoning, the film’s most controversial aspect, the issue of torture. It’s also an opening that the film
never really recovers from, struggling for the rest of its running time to ever
make you feel that involved again.

As much as time is the enemy in the hunt for bin Laden (we
watch as trails go cold, as governments, policies and priorities change), time
is also the enemy of the film. In
trying to compress a decade into two and a half hours, Zero Dark Thirty feels flabby and episodic, it’s sprawling length
serving to numb you. We already
know how it ends making the film a largely tension-free exercise, devoid of
urgency, with the climactic raid feeling strangely rushed, lacking
excitement. But perhaps the film’s
greatest drawback is its protagonist.
As her colleagues come and go (some burn out, some die) Maya is the one
constant in the hunt, the fanatic hunting a fanatic. It’s just unfortunate that she’s probably the least
interesting character in the film.

Bigelow’s always had a knack for creating films around
flawed but fascinating, obsessive characters; the white-trash vampires of Near Dark, Jamie Lee Curtis’ rookie cop in Blue Steel, Patrick Swayze’s
thrill-seeking surfer/bank robber in Point
, Ralph Fiennes’ sleazy
dream merchant in Strange Days, Jeremy Renner’s war-junkie in The Hurt Locker. Maya’s just not in the same
league. She’s a friendless,
single-minded automaton we’re asked to believe was recruited straight out of
high school (Really? No
college? No military or law
enforcement background? The CIA is
just cruising the halls of Sweet Valley
looking for ginger girls who’ll burn like charcoal briquettes in the
Pakistani sun?), totally devoted to her quest to the exclusion of any form of
personal life. She’s a cipher we
never get to know, like or care about and Jessica Chastain plays her as an
occasionally shouty, passive-aggressive, know-it-all. She lacks the magnetic intensity of Bigelow’s other
protagonists. The film is much
better served by its supporting cast with Joel
on cool, laconic form as the SEAL team leader, Mark Strong and James Gandolfini good as Maya’s Washington bosses, an always
excellent, and always criminally under-used, Jennifer Ehle as Maya’s colleague and the closest thing she has to
a friend and Harold Perrineau and Mark Duplass popping up in small but
pivotal roles. But the film
belongs to Chastain’s Lawless co-star
Clarke. He’s never been better and
when he’s off-screen his absence is keenly felt.

Authentic and sporadically engrossing, Zero Dark Thirty is an unsentimental and, ultimately, unsatisfying
account of the world’s greatest manhunt that’s very even-handedness and refusal
to take a political viewpoint may just be what makes it Bigelow’s weakest, most
uninvolving film in years.

David Watson

David Watson is a screenwriter, journalist and 'manny' who, depending on time of day and alcohol intake could be described as a likeable misanthrope or a carnaptious bampot. He loves about 96% of you but there's at least 4% he'd definitely eat in the event of a plane crash. Email:

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