19 May 2024

Zero Dark Thirty Review

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Zero Dark Thirty is the new espionage thriller directed by Kathryn Bigelow. It tells the story of the decade long hunt for Osama Bin Laden. While it is a thrilling ride with some fantastic scenes, there is something rather troubling about it, as it seems to, maybe unintentionally, condone torture. There has been much furore about this, and I believe the moral compass of the film, on this particular subject, is off.

The film follows CIA operative Maya (Jessica Chastain) and her obsession with catching Bin Laden, which derives from her belief that she is close to finding his personal courier. It starts with us hearing a sample of the devastation of 9/11, and we then follow Maya chasing up leads as she tries to find the courier over the course of an eight year period. I’m not ruining anything (except for those who have never read a newspaper) when I say that the story culminates in the attack on Bin Laden’s secret compound.

What the film does masterfully is keep the suspense despite our knowledge of how it all turns out. It does this through fantastic direction and stand-out performances. Bigelow has removed the incessant shaky cam from The Hurt Locker but has retained the gritty believability of its world. The highlights of Locker where a few stand-out set pieces (the sniper sequence with Ralph Fiennes being my favourite) but Bigelow has outdone all of them in the heart stopping finale. Its shocking, depressing, thrilling and wonderfully staged and shot. One of the best sequences I have seen in years. She also does a fantastic job of saving a heavy musical score until the end, so when you see attack helicopters flying over Pakistani mountains to ominous music by Alexandre Desplat the hairs stand up on your arm. For my money its Desplat’s best work since A Prophet.

Bigelow has created a film that absolutely feels real and this is helped tremendously by the performances. Chastain is totally believable as the determined agent. As the years go by she doesn’t age but nevertheless does a wonderful job of showing how the mounting pressure is getting to her and how she both simultaneously is sickened by all the violence around her but also starts to get used to it. The other stand-out performance comes from Jason Clarke as Dan, a cold eyed agent who is skilled at torture.

There are one or two scenes where characters seem to shout unnecessarily and it feels a little over the top (the circumstances are dramatic enough in themselves without “added drama”). I was happy to see fewer crying sequences in this than The Hurt Locker, but by the end Bigelow couldn’t resist, and for me it’s a little much. I believe less is more and sometimes tears are simply not needed.

The big problem with Zero Dark Thirty is its aforementioned stance on torture. I don’t know whether it was Bigelow’s intention to make a pro torture film but that’s what she has done. The first twenty minuets of the film feature a lot of torture. Torture that gets results. The name of the courier is the most vital piece of information obtained in this way, since it ultimately leads to the finding of Bin Laden. This seems to suggest that torture is an effective tool. It is shown to be horrible, disturbing and humiliating to those suffering but everyone they brutalise in this way seems to have vital information, and is a key member of al-Qaeda. In order to balance the film there should be shown or mentioned instances of wrongful torture or the capture and interrogation of the wrong person. There could have easily been a sequence where a Mohammed Buttle was arrested and interrogated rather than a Mohammed Tuttle. The fact that the case for why torture is wrong or often leads to false confessions and muddled information is never brought up means that this can only be seen as pro torture. As the film progresses we see Obama on the television saying how America is not going to torture people for information and we see CIA agents basically saying “Well done, we’ll never get him now!” The argument that it is only a film is not an argument. Film has been used for many years by nations and people for propaganda and is an effective tool, and Zero Dark Thirty starts by saying this is taken from first hand accounts. I personally think Bigelow just wanted to show that this sort of thing happens but she really needed a scene or even a mention that it is the wrong thing to do. All this said, this is a very good movie, but much like Argo (which painted the British embassy as being unwilling to help) or even Saving Private Ryan (which seems to show America single handedly winning the war) it tells its own version of the truth.

I really enjoyed Zero Dark Thirty. It is a very well made film, with terrific set pieces and performances. All it is lacking is balance in one key area. I thoroughly recommend it though.

Harry Davenport

★★★★

Rating:15
Release Date: 25th January 2013 (UK)
Director:Kathryn Bigelow
CastJessica ChastainJoel EdgertonKyle ChandlerJames GandolfiniMark Strong


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