We already know the ending of this story; Osama Bin Laden was seized and killed by US Navy Seals in his hideout compound in Pakistan on May 2, 2011. The focus of Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty however, mostly surrounds the years of struggle and the many events that led to the eventual capture of Bin Laden.
A haunting opening sets the scene; phone calls from people trapped in the Twin Towers are played over a dark screen. It is clear which side of the story we are hearing. CIA agent Maya (Jessica Chastain) has been following the Osama case from the beginning. Newly reassigned to an embassy base in Pakistan in 2003, Maya witnesses acts of torture in an attempt to gain intelligence. After years of few developments and more attacks, a pathway opens up that leads to the ultimate discovery of Bin Laden’s hiding.
Jessica Chastain is a revelation and gives the strongest performance of her already illustrious career. No moment is over dramatised or over sentimentalised, and when the stunning conclusion is reached, Maya’s cathartic final moments are felt with sincerity and a shared sigh of relief.
Maya is not the hard bodied female that we are more commonly familiar with in these types of films. She does not transform into a muscled officer and throw away the “vulnerabilities” of her female identity. In fact, masculinity and femininity are rarely positioned as discussable issues. Middle Eastern religion sees Maya donning the appropriate clothes when going out in public, but at no other point does her gender come into question, nor is it a factor she must battle against to be noticed and heard. There are battles to be fought against superiors and against terrorism itself, but none of that relates to Maya’s agency or her female identity.
For the most part, Maya is tough and emotionless. A friendly relationship develops with a female co-worker (played by the terrific Jennifer Ehle), and initially heads into Blue Steel territory, Bigelow’s 1989 film starring Jamie Lee Curtis as policewoman Megan Turner. In Blue Steel, the untimely death of Megan’s best friend Tracy (Elizabeth Pena), leads Megan to seek justice through a physical and mental transformation. There are similarities with Maya’s story here, but unlike Blue Steel, thankfully no feminine transformations occur.
While The Hurt Locker focused on the complicated internal boredom of soldiers deployed in Afghanistan, Zero Dark Thirty‘s characters have a clear mission. War is less of a theme with the manhunt taking centre stage. Terrorism, surveillance and political bureaucracy all come into play though, particularly with some controversial waterboarding scenes that have stirred the proverbial pot in Washington.
Kathryn Bigelow’s directorial work once again notes a career high point. Pacing leads to tension so engulfing that keeping one’s breath is a constant struggle. Stillness is often disrupted loudly and unexpectedly, allowing Bigelow to catch her audience frequently off-guard. The final hunt down sequence has a strong element of game play, whereby the audience is placed alongside the Navy Seals who are completing increasingly complicated levels that lead to the ultimate target.
Former journalist Mark Boal’s script undoubtedly takes some creative licence over particular events, but is nevertheless engaging during every scene. Originally, Boal and Bigelow were developing a script regarding how the world’s most wanted man had escaped capture, until one fateful day changed their story. Gathering intelligence from several sources, Boal’s journalistic credentials are pointedly clear and outstandingly compelling.
Where Zero Dark Thirty exactly sits politically is a slightly hazy issue. The film shows the CIA using torture techniques to gain valuable intelligence, but administrative clerical work uncovers a major development. The Obama administration is represented as sternly against torture, but some CIA agents see this as a threat to attaining intelligence. It is no surprise that people close to the CIA are in damage control mode.
At 157 minutes, no scene feels is over developed, overemphasized or played out too long. Quite frankly, Zero Dark Thirty is cinematic genius and one of the best films to come out of the United States in years.
Zero Dark Thirty is in Australian cinemas from Thursday 31 January through Icon Films.