Film Review | Zero Dark Thirty

The stakes are high in Kathryn Bigelow's depiction of the decade-long hunt for Osama Bin Laden, but her merciless approach makes for an alienating, numbing film.

United States of Maya: Jessica Chastain plays the relentlessly ambitious CIA operative determined to capture Osama Bin Laden.
United States of Maya: Jessica Chastain plays the relentlessly ambitious CIA operative determined to capture Osama Bin Laden.

Look, Zero Dark Thirty certainly has its merits. It's 'gripping' in the way we've come to expect from Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow, especially after The Hurt Locker (2010), and in her depiction of the hunt and eventual capture of Osama Bin Laden, she - working off a script by 'Locker' collaborator Mark Boal - can be commended for leaving the moral ambiguities of the decade-long mission untouched for us to ponder.

It's nice to watch a mainstream - and, again, heavily Oscar nominated - film not insult your intelligence. It's also nice to be able to enjoy an impeccably - sometimes painfully - on-point performance by our lead, the beautiful and talented Jessica Chastain, for the odd two-and-a-half hours that the film unspools, sometimes mirroring the meandering, maddening mission in its length and twists and turns.

But all this is for nought if The experience is ultimately a hollow one.

A black screen, decorated only by an aural cacophony of panicked voices - telephone conversations made as the 9/11 attacks had just occurred - serve as our only entry-point into this heady trip into the heart of darkness, the screen rapidly blinking into a stark scene of torture at an 'undisclosed' location in Pakistan.

CIA operative Dan (Jason Clarke) is showing the ropes to promising new recruit Maya (Chastain), but it turns out to be a bit of a baptism of fire: the process involves the routine waterboarding and humiliation of detainee Ammar (Reda Kateb), believed to have information on a key courier to Osama Bin Laden.

Though Maya's assessment of the situation in Pakistan (she is working under the auspices of the US emabassy) is that it's "kinda f****d up," the pale and sharp-cheekboned prodigy is also doggedly dedicated to the job - a clue as to how her professional dedication to the task at hand will eventually spiral into obsession as the decade goes by.

In what has turned out to be a story strand that has generated white-hot debate ever since the movie first hit US cinemas - though perhaps understandably, 'Zero' was a controversial property before anyone  had even got around to seeing it - the CIA questionable methods, coupled with Maya's single-minded determination to locate the architect of the 9/11 attacks, yields a sliver of information that may just push the dominos of scattered information in the agency's favour.

Zoning in on locating the enigmatic - and allegedly crucial - figure of 'Abu Ahmed', Maya proceeds on her mission with the occasional help of colleagues that are made to dodge an increasing number of bureaucratic hurdles and pressure from the agency... a good two film-hours pass until Bigelow is allowed to depict the fateful raid of Bin Laden's compound at Abbottabad - an eternity, and an illustration of the twisting, maddening and ever-compromised mission.

At one point, an in no uncertain terms, Maya is told by a superior - Islamabad Station Chief Joseph Bradley (Kyle Chandler) - that Bin Laden is no longer a priority. What America now cares about is preventing another potential attack from Al Qaeda, full stop. Though Bradley is presented as the cynical and blinkered authority figure making concessions at the expense of a seemingly idealistic quest, it's hard to disagree with him. Coupled with the numb, even superficial way Bigelow treats her characters, and her insistence on 'immediacy' - offering very little context from either side of this long-drawn out, often painful, often shameful, spy-game - the motivation for locating and disposing of Bin Laden begins to increasingly feel like an empty exercise in espionage (and military) porn.

This could, of course, have served as a very powerful thematic flip-side to the rigorous espionage - 'tradecraft' - and military prowess we see on display. And it's certainly a point that is made: it would be very difficult for anyone to walk away from the film feeling particularly triumphant (the outro is couched to perfectly echo loneliness, even futility). What also emerges, however, is that Bigelow's reputation - formed with tongue somewhat in cheek, no doubt - as "the most macho filmmaker working at the moment" also arguably makes her the least qualified 'man for the job'.

The harsh, entirely uncommented upon motion of the film will leave you wondering: why is all this happening? And though this is certainly a poignant question, you'll be asking it for all the wrong reasons. We know nothing about Maya save that she was recruited from a tender age (plucked directly from high school, in fact). Worse, we learn very little about the motivation that drives the terrorists and detainees the agency come into very frequent contact with.

Let it not be said that there isn't talent and conviction here - Bigelow, a sorceress of the intense scenario (in any genre, and she's wrangled with quite a few over the years) handles each individual scene with precision and grit. Chastain - full disclosure: my current Hollywood crush - handles her own character's confidence and obsessive drive without dropping the ball once. It's a riveting performance, and had there been any justice in the world, she would have snatched the Best Actress Oscar away from Jennifer Lawrence during last Sunday's ceremony.

But at no point can the film justify its hefty running time and muddled internal motive. It's too dragging to be an action film, not penetrating enough to be a 'documentary-like exercise' and its characters are such obstinate ciphers that for any real drama to emerge would have simply been an impossibility.

All that's left for us to enjoy are the embers of a skeleton. And all they reveal are one superpower nation's desperate attempt at purging itself.

Desperation, however, runs chiefly on bafflement and confusion.

These aren't the ingredients of a good story, and never will be. No matter how potent the historical period you're treating turns out to be.

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