Written by Films

Zero Dark Thirty

As this film came closer to being released I was having mixed opinions about it. There were those stories about how it had overemphasised the success of using torture to tell the CIA what they needed. Then there were stories that it somehow defended torture (a misreading surely).
On the other hand, I’d heard that it was a really good film. Kathryn Bigelow seems, of late, to have specialised in military films. There was the Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker, and there was also the commercially unsuccessful K-19: Widowmaker set on a submarine.
But aside from the regularly mentioned Near Dark, Strange Days and Point Break, Bigelow has also worked on some of my favourite TV over the years. There are a couple of episodes of Homicide: Life on the Streets which in many ways was the precursor of The Wire; some of Wild Palms the somewhat forgotten mini-series that came just before the thematically similar Strange Days; and an episode of one of the best TV series yet to receive a DVD release, Karen Sisco.
The latter had a strong female character very much like Jessica Chastain’s Maya in Zero Dark Thirty. That said, Maya is much more vulnerable.
This new film starts with audio recordings of telephone calls made in the immediate aftermath 9/11 and follows a part of the CIA tasked with finding Osama (or Usama here) Bin Laden. In particular, we follow Maya, based on a real agent, who from entry in the Agency has a single aim in discovering Bin Laden’s whereabouts.
She’s aided by a variety of people including Jason Clarke’s Dan who we first meet torturing a suspect, and Jennifer Ehle’s Jessica. Maya is largely based in Pakistan, and it’s no cake-walk there.
The passage of time flows, and various real-life terrorism events form waypoints for the story. Yet despite knowing what’s going to happen in the end, the tension is ramped up throughout.
The final assault – when it comes – on Bin Laden’s compound seems to be played out in just about real time. And it happens without music in almost complete darkness, with lots of infrared footage from the assault team’s point of view. It makes the whole section of the film incredibly visceral.
The cast is excellent. I did find it slighly odd that so many non-Americans were in the roles. In one scene Mark Strong and Stephen Dillane are having a conversation together in a corridor, both with American accents. And as well as Ehle, Clarke isn’t American either (he’s Australian).
Whether it deserves to win Oscars or not is not a question I can answer – although Chastain is superb. But I do know that it’s a great thriller, and well worth seeing.