VOD film review: Zero Dark Thirty
James R | On 09, Jun 2013
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Cast: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Jennifer Ehle, Mark Strong
“Can you pass me that bucket?” Dan (Clarke) asks Maya (Chastain). She pauses before handing it to him, filled up with water. This, it becomes clear in Zero Dark Thirty, is all part of the standard procedure in the USA’s hunt for Osama Bin Laden. Kathryn Bigelow’s thriller tracks the CIA investigation across the decade from 9/11 right up to his assassination – events that we know very well. What Bigelow’s immersive reconstruction manages to do is make you forget all of that time that passed, then pieces it back together, bit by painstaking bit. It’s a serious achievement, one that grips like Velcro trainers and shocks with unexpected threats, while also putting a key chapter in American history permanently on the record.
What really impresses is Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal’s ability to pare everything down to Maya’s journey. The CIA staff roster may include Mark DuPlass, Kyle Chandler, Mark Strong and John Barrowman, but, like The Hurt Locker, we follow everything through one character’s perspective. Dogged, tired, thrilled and jaded, Jessica Chastain’s performance is riveting. Her private life remains top secret (even with Jennifer Ehle’s enthusiastic colleague, there’s no soapy stuff here). She follows CIA procedure methodically – cruelly torturing until it’s not allowed, filtering through paperwork and double-checking leads. It may not have the melodramatic twists and turns of Homeland, but the film’s patience and tension are compellingly convincing.
That realism explodes into handheld suspense for the final 30 minutes, a slice of action cinema that takes place in pitch-black silence. Even here, Bigelow doesn’t let you think ahead; when the decisive gunshot occurs, it’s not until afterwards that anyone realises what’s happened.
While the all-male assault is the pay-off for the torturous legwork that came before, Bigelow’s boldest move is not to celebrate or judge what we’re watching, steering clear of jingoistic bombast. Instead, things are kept grimly matter-of-fact as she returns to her victorious protagonist. Ever controlled, Maya’s reaction to these events is what gives the film a moral ambiguity, which questions not just her own well-being but the entire approach to the war on terror. After years of agents and politicians passing it along, Zero Dark Thirty hands the bucket to the audience and coolly asks: what next?