Zero Dark Thirty is perhaps not the film you expect. Tackling CIA operations with far less fizz-bang-wallop than, say, Argo, it is a dispassionate, journalistic depiction of one woman’s 10-year search for Bin Laden. It is not here to entertain you but to make you a witness to this extraordinary event.
Kathryn Bigelow and her team have created a gripping drama. With its steady pacing and minimalist tone it gives you a genuine feeling for what must have gone on in the search for Bin Laden – the years committed, the jobs lost, the lives wasted, the friendships tested.
This vast yet intimate drama centres around Maya (Jessica Chastain), the CIA agent, recruited out of high school, who will eventually lead the team to Bin Laden’s door. In fact, it is so unashamedly Maya’s story that it can be difficult to keep track of some supporting characters.
They can become confused, even forgettable (which might not seem fair) but the film is so driven by Maya’s search that it is vital that she be the memorable one. There is excellent support from her colleagues, especially Mark Strong, minimally recognisable as Maya’s superior, Jennifer Ehle and Jason Clarke but hers is the face, the story, you will remember. The film is solely concerned with Maya and her hunt.
Jessica Chastain gives a towering performance as this single-minded agent. She absolutely commands the film and never loses intensity or believability. She is thoroughly deserving of her recent Golden Globe win and with any luck will be picking up the Oscar next month. However, there are times that you feel, for all of the work that Chastain is putting in, the film does her a slight disservice by making her quite so physically the centre of attention.
There are scenes involving tables of dull men in dull suits in which she actually appears to glow. She is so much the focus of our attention that when it is becomes clear that people have failed to notice her, or she is struggling to make herself heard it fails to make an impact on the audience.
Now, you may have heard about a controversy surrounding this picture and no review would be complete without mentioning it so, yes, Flush the Fashion can confirm that John Barrowman is indeed in the film.
Honestly, it is better to be pre-warned – it will startle you less. As for the depiction of torture (the real controversy), the film certainly doesn’t hold back; one of the first things you see is a session of waterboarding. It may be unseemly to show it but it would be dishonest to ignore it.
Also, it plays such a major role in how the story and characters develop that it would have been both dramatically and politically irresponsible to turn a blind eye to it. You see the characters’ fear of future finger pointing when it is indicated that torture will no longer be excused: “Politics are changing and you don’t want to be the last one holding a dog collar.”
Mention should also be made of Alexandre Desplat’s score, used so sparingly that you could forget it was there but always subtle enough to avoid drawing attention to itself when it does appear. It is a perfect example of emotional underscoring.
Zero Dark Thirty is as single-minded and focussed as its protagonist. Characters are bereft of the charisma and background information of Bigelow’s previous war-time Oscar winner, The Hurt Locker, so you have to take them at face value and focus (just as they do) on what they do and not who they are.
UK Cinema Release Date 25th January.