Katherine Bigelow's follow up to her Oscar winning The Hurt Locker was a film about the hunt for 9/11 mastermind Osama Bin Ladin, which due to a significant and unignorable event in the real-life narrative, quickly became a film about the demise of Osama Bin Ladin. Zero Dark Thrity - which has arrived amid a whirlwind of controversy due to its depiction of torture - follows the decade-long manhunt for 'UBL' (sic), told through the eyes of a dedicated and headstrong young officer named Maya (Jessica Chastain). The film opens in darkness to the sound of harrowing emergency calls from the World Trade Centre. The tone is set as the narrative shifts forward two years, where Maya is now working in the US embassy in Pakistan, where frustrated US officers are resorting to torture and humiliation to extract any information as to the whereabouts of Bin Ladin. The film then recounts the events between 2003 and the capture of the al-Quaeda leader in 2011.
Jessica Chastain is excellent in a tricky role. Maya, who is allegedly based on a real-life CIA agent, walks the tightrope between being a 'one-woman-against-the-system' archetype, and a narrative device for the audience to see through, but Chastain's performance is so believable human that it elevates the character beyond either of these. There are obvious parallels to be drawn between the heroine and Bigelow, who has had more than her fair share of experience in a male-dominated environment.
Mark Boal, who also provided the screenplay for 2008's The Hurt Locker, has, unsurprisingly, produced a script that is meticulously researched. There is a docu-drama feel to many of the events inZero Dark Thirty that lends an unmatched authenticity but is, at times, also in danger of being quite alienating. Bigelow's clinical approach has a tendency to dilute the human drama; one scene in particular, involving an unfortunate turn of events for one of Maya's few friends, is notably unmoving. But, Bigelow has never had much room for sentiment.
As with The Hurt Locker, the supporting cast made up of some impressive names including Mark Strong, Joel Edgerton, James Gandolfini and Édgar Ramierz, who are relatively peripheral and used sparingly. Maya's frustration is well captured, but there is a sense that significant events, and her involvement in them, are a little crow barred in. There is not much in the way of narrative, and at nearly three hours, certain, more 'talky' scenes do tend to drag despite the snappy dialogue. However, when the film reaches top speed, there is no stopping it. There are number of occasions in Zero Dark Thirty in which Bigelow is in full flight, and they are a joy to behold.
The inevitable final act is a superbly dexterous display of directing, and it needs to be after the amount of suspense leading up to it. The Abbottabad raid is the stand-out scene of 2012, and much like the operation itself, somehow manages to maintain order among the cacophonous cocktail of crashing choppers, assault rifles, barking dogs and weeping children. It is completely gripping and doesn't seem for one frame like anything other than documentary footage. It is a shame that our heroine is relegated to the sidelines, but it's one of the many compromises of a script that was forced to evolve.
In terms of the uproar surrounding the interrogation scenes, it's understandable to see how some have reacted angrily to what could be seen as an ambivalence towards torture, but the film is simply depicting the events as they happened and, like it or not, torture was commonplace under the Bush administration. Bigelow deals with the murky subject of torture with the same verity as she does the other atrocities of the period: without passing judgment.
In Zero Dark Thirty, Bigelow has produced the perfect companion piece to her Oscar-winning study of the Iraq war. Despite an accomplished central performance, the film lacks a human touch and the narrative momentum sometimes sags, but these minor quibbles are more than made up for with its adept direction and nerve-shredding action.