Cinema Review: Zero Dark Thirty


DIR:  Kathryn Bigelow  WRI: Mark Boal  DOP Greig Fraser   ED: Dylan Tichenor, William Goldenberg  DES: Jeremy Hindle  CAST: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Joel Edgerton, Jennifer Ehle, Mark Strong, Kyle Chandler

Condensing the ten year manhunt for Osama Bin Laden into movie form is a tough task especially when the ending is already firmly cemented in the public consciousness. The appeal of this film then becomes a procedural study of what information and intelligence we weren’t privy to during a decade where the trail appeared to have gone cold.  The devil is therefore in the detail and the Hurt Locker creative team of Bigelow and screenwriter Boal have rendered a forensic, exhaustive and often exhausting depiction of a murky labyrinthine process.

Aiming for the sort of quasi-documentary feel that infers and evokes an air of convincing verisimilitude, the filmmakers elect to insert a fictional character Maya (Jessica Chastain) as the audience’s guide through the jargon-heavy world of military intelligence. Chastain plays a CIA analyst who latches onto a snippet of intel extracted by extremely dubious means. Her superiors dismiss the value and veracity of the information but Maya is dogged in her pursuit as the quest becomes more personal with every passing year.

The atmosphere of authenticity is enforced by Bigelow’s decision to staff her film with largely unknown faces. At first glance, Chastain seems to breach this self-imposed rule but despite a run of impressive high-profile work, she retains a genuine chameleon quality where she melts into each individual role. It would be perverse if the profile and exposure that accompanies a possible Oscar win robs her of that virtue. In truth, Maya is deliberately one dimensional. Her entire focus and indeed entire being is devoted to the manhunt to the exclusion of any relationships. Thankfully, the characterisation never slips into ‘ice maiden’ caricature as Maya’s coolness is regularly enlivened by humanising outbursts of wit, insolence and office-based graffiti.

The film juxtaposes infamous dates that are seared into the collective memory with lesser known events. In a context where prior knowledge should dilute tension, Bigelow excels at generating it. Her skills are deployed with superb precision in certain sequences especially a misjudged decision to allow an unsearched vehicle onto an army base. The small ominous details are astounding. For instance, a black cat crosses the screen in the foreground as the car approaches. It’s subtle. It might even have been a happy accident for the filmmakers but it’s a potent and insidious portent of impending doom. Another incendiary act of violence literally shatters a moment where the audience foolishly relax in conjunction with the characters onscreen. Naturally, the concluding nocturnal storming of the Bin Laden compound is a technical marvel. For gung-ho members of the audience, this sequence is the entire raison d’etre for the film but it’s telling that this project was apparently greenlit long before those climatic events unfurled in real life.

For all its excellence, the film is far from flawless. Bigelow and Boal strain to keep Maya central to the action in a manner that winds up straining credibility in the end. Her ubiquity begins to approach omnipresence as she is placed at far too many notorious events. The pain is also palpable as you can sense Bigelow’s frustrated desire to place Maya on the marine choppers on the actual mission. Instead, she is somehow the person manning the radar at base and letting the soldiers know that fighters jets have been scrambled as their intrusion into Pakistan is spotted. Equally, the need to distil an entire nation’s pain and bitter determination into one person exerts a toll on credibility. Towards the end, the global search nearly becomes solely and exclusively Maya’s property and some of the dialogue lines to stress that are risible even coming from a performer as accomplished as Chastain. Frankly, they’d be risible coming from Rambo.

Like its’ central character,  Zero Dark Thirty is cold and methodical. That innate coldness may put some viewers off. Others may not get the film they expected.  Thankfully the tone is mainly more cerebral than celebratory. As embodied in Maya, it’s clear even in a moment of victory that key values and qualities have been lost forever. It’s a fitting and well judged note of sadness to end on.

James Phelan


Rated 15A (see IFCO website for details)

157 mins

Zero Dark Thirty is released on 25th January 2013

Zero Dark Thirty  – Official Website


The Hurt Locker

The Hurt Locker

DIR: Kathryn Bigelow • WRI: Mark Boal • PRO: Kathryn Bigelow, Mark Boal, Nicolas Chartier, Greg Shapiro • DOP: Barry Ackroyd • ED: Chris Innis, Bob Murawski • DES: Karl Júlíusson • CAST: Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Bryan Geraghty, Evangeline Lilly

Jeremy Renner may not have received an Oscar® nomination earlier this year for The Hurt Locker, yet he more than deserved it. In Kathryn Bigelow’s (Point Break, K 19:The Widowmaker) excellent Iraqi war movie, his is the standout performance in what could be considered the first truly effective look at the war in Iraq ,or, more specifically, the occupation of Iraq by US-led forces. As bomb disposal expert Staff Sergeant William James, Renner brings an intensity and believability to a role that, like the film as a whole, could so easily have succumbed to the clichés that are home to many war movies, be it melodramatic, crazed soldiers or pseudo-lecturing on the depravity of war.

Based on Mark Boal’s book of the same name, The Hurt Locker focuses on a Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) Bomb Disposal unit with Bravo Company in modern day Baghdad. The unit, consisting of Staff  Sgt James, Sergeant JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Bryan Geraghty) are sent to areas where there are suspected bombs, with Sgt. James, the maverick soldier of the piece, sent into the firing line as the man tasked with defusing whatever device may or may not be planted on the streets of Iraq.

In the film’s opening scene, we see James’s predecessor with Bravo Company, Sergeant Matt Thompson (Guy Pearce), killed, after the bomb which he aimed to defuse was set off by a nearby shopkeeper. As the viewer soon realises, the soldiers stationed in Iraq take every little move as potentially hostile and often with good reason – an idle car, an individual using their phone, even a misplaced piece of rubble all pose deadly risks to those monitoring the streets of Iraq. In less capable hands this point could well have been laboured, but Bigelow effectively builds up the tension and paranoia which constantly follows the soldiers in their actions. Indeed, the narrative is set up according to how many days are left in Bravo Company’s ‘rotation’ in Iraq, putting forward the very real time-bomb of survival these young soldiers face.

Bigelow’s film may infuriate some viewers for ostensibly taking at times an apolitical stance towards the conflict. Yet permeating the surface are instances of Bigelow probing the mindsets of the men sent to take part in this war and the dichotomy of service versus survival. Indeed, throughout The Hurt Locker, Mark Boal’s script is littered with acerbic comments on the realities on the ground. After US soldiers arrest a taxi driver who sped passed a checkpoint without stopping, Sgt. James wryly comments, ‘If he wasn’t an insurgent before, he sure the hell is now’. In another instance, a US Soldier asks Sgt. James, ‘Can’t we just shoot him?’ in reference to an innocent family man who begs the US soldiers to defuse a bomb he was made to carry. Whilst Specialist Eldridge and Sgt. Sanborn see little point in the conflict; for Sgt. James his role as a bomb technician is a calling – something he was born to do and which he excels at. Reckless and brash (taking his protective suit off whilst defusing bombs), he is more at home on the streets of Iraq than the domesticity of the US, seen so lucidly in his bafflement at trying to choose a cereal from the multitude on offer in a supermarket on his return home. Moments of simple humanity and camaraderie punctuating the lives of the soldiers do at times feel forced, yet at the same time are all the more poignant given the veritable vacuum which Iraq poses for these men. Thus, a simple friendship between Sgt. James and an Iraqi boy nicknamed ‘Beckham’ is surprisingly believable as James struggles to bond with his fellow soldiers at Camp Victory (As Sgt. Sanborn caustically notes, Camp Victory was formerly called Camp Liberty, but ‘Victory sounds better’).

The film’s close may seem like a calling card for enlistment in Iraq, yet this would be to miss Bigelow/Boal’s crucial point. Whatever about the merits of the Iraqi invasion or occupation, the viewpoints of the soldiers on the ground are equally revealing – isolated, dangerous and constantly fighting for survival, Iraq is a twilight zone not only for modern warfare, but modern life itself.

Jason Robinson
(See biog here)

Rated 15A (See IFCO website for details)
The Hurt Locker is released on 28th August 2009

The Hurt Locker – Official Website