Following 9/11, the CIA makes finding Al-Qaeda terrorist leader Osama bin Laden their top priority. Over the course of a decade, single-minded intelligence operative Maya (Chastain) pursues him doggedly, even when the trail goes cold and those around her have diverted their attention elsewhere…
As an account of the most famous manhunt in history, what’s most impressive about Zero Dark Thirty is that it works at all, given the fact that everyone knows how it’s going to end. After all, knowledge that the ‘baddie’ dies isn’t a spoiler here – as bin Laden’s death remains the biggest news story of this generation. Re-teaming after their Best Picture-winning efforts on The Hurt Locker, filmmaker Kathryn Bigelow and journalist-turned-screenwriter Mark Boal detail the ten-year search in authentic, gripping fashion.
Aside from the odd explosive burst and a superbly-crafted compound raid climax, there’s less action than you might expect from Bigelow, though. Instead, she opts for an unhurried procedural which depicts meetings, office politics and behind-the-scenes work (which is far more fascinating than it sounds), as our obsessed protagonist refuses to give up their all-consuming search for an elusive monster. In this way it’s particularly comparable to Zodiac, while there are also obvious parallels to Homeland, and a riveting, Call Of Duty-type finale.
With tactical jargon and various terrorist names thrown about without explanation (Al-This, Al-That, Al-The-Other), Bigelow makes no easy concessions and expects us to keep up. Jumping from date to date and from year to year as the script attempts to compress (read: cram) a decade’s worth of key events into one film, it’s true that patience is required initially. Thankfully, the opening stretch is livened up by a few intense torture sequences which, despite what pre-release chatter would have you believe, don’t condone them as a means of extracting information. As Bigelow has pointed out, depicting torture is not the same thing as condoning it. Plus, they’re only a smart part of the overall picture.
An amalgamation of typical Bigelow character tropes, Jessica Chastain’s Maya is both a driven obsessive and a strong female figure in a man’s world. Defined solely by her work, Maya is purposefully given almost nothing in terms of character, which unfortunately leaves us somewhat emotionally detached from her and the film as a whole. Chastain’s Lawless co-star Jason Clarke is a stand-out though as her torture-tutor, while the strong supporting cast includes the likes of Mark Strong, Jennifer Ehle, Kyle Chandler, James Gandolfini, Joel Edgerton, Chris Pratt, Mark Duplass and John Barrowman.
Despite the fact that everyone watching knows how it’s going to end, Zero Dark Thirty works. The unhurried procedural approach requires patience initially, but overall it captures the world’s most famous manhunt in authentic, gripping fashion.