Any film that is ‘based on true events’ or labelled as a ‘historical drama’, creates an altered viewing experience. The plot is tautological, we often know the outcome, and the film instead becomes about detail, nuance and interpretation. At least, that is what a good film should do.
Zero Dark Thirty, a highly controversial work from director Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker), is no exception to this. In a blur of documentation and dramatization, the film details the decade long hunt for America’s Public Enemy No.1, Osama Bin Laden, culminating in his grisly assassination. From that description alone, I had my misgivings, furthered by the inevitable backlash from all corners regarding Bigelow’s extremely uncomfortable depiction of torture. This film could have so easily become a vehicle for patriotism, propaganda, and large men dressed as Navy SEALS chanting ‘USA’ in front of a rippling star spangled banner. However, Bigelow’s intense, pared down filming combined with Mark Boal’s unforgiving and unsentimental script creates a brilliant take on what is vast becoming its own genre; the ‘War on Terror’.
The secret lies in the film’s main motive. This is not a film about torture, or politics, or America. It is barely a film about Bin Laden. Much like The Hurt Locker, it is a film about obsession. CIA agent Maya (Jessica Chastain) is almost fanatical in her search for OBL (the film is thick with jargon); to the extent that the emotional core of the piece is the search itself.
Characters come and go, torture is used and dismissed almost ambivalently, and leads are found futile, until the only thing left is Chastain’s fragile, exhausting, and utterly compelling performance. She, like the majority of the characters, is without past or future, and figured only within the context of the mission.
This centrality allows Bigelow to depict the political undercurrents and relationships without letting them become the chief objective. In this creative environment, co-stars Jason Clarke, Mark Strong and Joel Edgerton give excellent performances with little material to work from. Bigelow did deviate a little from her nameless character trope by casting John Barrowman as a White House suit, however. Go back to Wales, Captain Jack.
Though the tracking progress takes centre stage in Zero Dark Thirty, the film’s climax is of course the success of the mission. After hurtling through years of work, with some slightly clumsy examples of terrorists attacks (including the London bombings), we finally reach the night Maya has waited for. And Bigelow makes us wait as much as her heroine has to. The pacing is steady, but the suspense is relentless, drawing out every detail of the raid until the task is complete and the audience’s energy is utterly spent. Here Bigelow is at her filmmaking best.
Unexpectedly moved to tears during the last part of the film, I am made to face the most uncomfortable reality yet. Though a ‘historical drama’, unlike Lincoln or some others of this year’s Oscar contenders, the politics of Zero Dark Thirty is on-going. However, it is not the political element that inspired the strongest reaction, but a single shot of Chastain’s face when her task is finally complete. The film may have its controversies and its flaws, but it remains a fantastic piece of cinema and for that, I give it full marks and any Oscar it wants.