Director Kathryn Bigelow’s follow up to her Oscar winning Iraq War film The Hurt Locker mines similar-ish ground as we follow determined CIA agent Maya (Jessica Chastain) as she hunts for Public Enemy #1, Osama Bin Laden, from 9/11 right through to his capture and death during the raid on his compound at 12.30 (Zero Dark refers to midnight) on May 2nd 2011.
First things first though, the film is not a pro-torture propaganda piece as many have condemned it as being. It is giving you the truth about what went on during the War on Terror, or at least the film version of it. What is being presented shows that at times it worked, and at times it didn’t, and that it takes a toll on those doling it out. The water boarding is never glorified or lingered on for too long, and Maya is shown to be disgusted at it, as are, presumably, the audience. The response from Jason Clarke’s torturer is essentially what the film is saying: this is happening/has happened, deal with it.
While the film could never really be described as entertaining, it is never not riveting. Every actor commands the screen, none more so than Jessica Chastain. Her performance is utterly fantastic; the arc her character goes through is thoroughly believable and engaging even if her reasoning during the whole film is a little questionable: “I’m right.” “Why?” “Because I am.” And in what is perhaps a little unfortunate, the comparison to Homeland’s Carrie Matheson raises its head; both are similarly driven individuals who forgo their own personal well being in their pursuit of their goals.
The film is shot with a very documentary feel, with on screen title cards telling where and more importantly when we are in the narrative, often dropping in on dates on which some real life atrocities were committed during the films 10 year time span. While incredibly important to the arc of the main character, these time jumps make the film seem very choppy as a result, and every time we see Maya, she’s even more determined than she was a few moments ago. The structure does make the film feel a little bit like a procedural drama, a very good one I should add, but a little by the numbers at the same time.
But whenever the scenes are so good, you don’t mind as much that it’s essentially just one scene of exposition after another. Scenes are full of tension, both those that are fiction and actual events that are recreated for the film (one particular scene involving a London bus sticks in the mind), and the final half an hour in which the CIA team are sent to Bin Laden’s compound is a tight (not)action sequence that is very intense despite all of the audience (one would hope) knowing the outcome.
So overall, a very well made, accomplished, intelligent, based on true events, brave film with an astonishing lead performance and which works well due to the audiences connection to the events. As said above, it’s not what I would call enjoyable as it’s a tough watch at points with the topics presented, but definitely a film worth seeing.
3 and a half stars
Review by Jonathan Cardwell.
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