Starring: Jessica Chastain, Joel Edgerton, Mark Strong
You may like this if you liked: The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow, 2008), Rendition (Gavin Hood, 2007), Green Zone (Paul Greengrass, 2010)
Zero Dark Thirty is a chronicle of the ten years between the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the eventual killing of Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. The perspective of the story is solely from the point of the CIA and the protagonist is CIA operative Maya (Chastain) and her obsessive and determined quest to find his location, which she eventually does.
As you would expect, due to the subject matter, Zero Dark Thirty has been greeted with controversy and criticism for glorifying torture or being one sided. I found it to be none of these; I personally found Zero Dark Thirty a riveting, extremely well made and gripping drama. Despite the run time of 157 minutes the pace never lets go, and though it is quite exhausting the authentic feel of both the action and the CIA conversations kept me gripped from start to finish. I don’t believe I am the first to say this, but for a film when everyone knows the ending to still have you on edge and completely gripped shows a great film maker.
As for the apparent glorifying of torture; in Zero Dark Thirty the torture scenes are unpleasant, but in my view simply presenting it in a very matter of fact way. The sheer fact that pleasant negotiations and problem solving get more results than torture surely dispels any ideas that this film glorifies it. I have seen many complaints about apparent inaccuracies in the story; one sided biased or not showing the innocent people that lost their lives on both sides. I think this is all missing the point. Bigelow treats the audience with the respect knowing that we are all well aware of what happened in these ten years and a vast majority of us were not living under a rock or saw a bit of news between 2001 and 2011. We all know the innocent casualties on both sides, for Zero Dark Thirty to start showing all this would border onto a patronising and preachy attempt at showing morality. This would also possibly make the film a few hours longer potentially. It is all the better for not even attempting to preach any morals, as this would have been a mistake. There are no real good or bad guys, in terms of how anyone is presented, Zero Dark Thirty just wants to tell a story and not present any moral judgements. This is a film that assumes the audience is intelligent enough to form their own opinions of morality and know the circumstances behind the events depicted within the narrative.
There is an attempt to make the film more personal with a focus on a protagonist who does change throughout the film, and this is a good element. We do go on a journey with Maya as she becomes increasingly obsessed and determined. She is not necessarily presented as a saint or one of the ‘good guys’, just demonstrating all the strengths and flaws we all have. Her obsession with catching bin Laden does take its toll on her health, and this obsession and determination she has are basic human conditions that could be applied to any situation, making Maya a sympathetic and likeable protagonist. Making the story more protagonist driven does in my view make the experience more satisfying and involving. Here for me is the only emotional strain of the film, Maya’s obsession and single minded determination that takes over her life, not something as insular as the westerners being the good guys as some people seem to have interpreted.
I personally loved The Hurt Locker, and do feel that was certainly a more complete film than Zero Dark Thirty. However, that was a fictional story, allowing for more creative freedom. The fact is this film does feel episodic and maybe slightly unconventional in terms of structure. However this would be necessary to keep the running time down and present almost more of a faction than a conventional story.
I am sure there are moments in Zero Dark Thirty that may be exaggerated, as with all films, but overall this is a morally neutral, non-preachy account of true recent events. Any issues are certainly made up for by the final thirty minutes. I do not believe it is a spoiler to say they get him, but the whole sequence is gripping and has you on edge. It is extremely well made and really makes you feel like you are there, making the last two hours extremely worthwhile. I also felt the ending was handled correctly and made in the right tone. No high fiving and no deluded celebrations, just a pensive cautionary thought that in the grand scheme of things has anything actually changed?
Zero Dark Thirty is a gripping and intelligent thriller that is extremely well made. There is no single attempt to take any moral high ground here, just present one of the biggest news stories of the last decade through a very human protagonist demonstrating the flaws of us all. It does require you to watch carefully, but this his produces a highly involving edge of your seat experience that I would thoroughly recommend.