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.