Dir: Kathryn Bigelow
With: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke
Runtime: 157 minutes
KATHRYN Bigelow's muscular drama about the pursuit of Osama Bin Laden, and the role played by torture in that task, begins with a punch to the guts as tapes of last phone calls made from the Twin Towers on 9/11 send the viewer hurtling back to that terrible day in 2001.
The scene thus set, Bigelow begins her tale. Zero Dark Thirty, named after the time the mission on the Abbottabad compound was launched, has caused controversy in the US on two main counts: that by not condemning torture it condones it; and that it oversimplifies the tale of how Bin Laden was caught.
Bigelow has countered, rightly, that depiction is not endorsement. The latter charge of over-simplification sticks more. This is, after all, a movie about a 10-year investigation, details of which are still emerging.
One thing is not in doubt: when it comes to making action movies, particularly about the complex business of modern warfare, the Oscar-winning director of The Hurt Locker is as good, indeed far better, than any man working the same beat. Regardless of where you stand on the politics of Zero Dark Thirty, this is an engrossing, action-packed picture that delivers thrills and thought-provoking drama in equal measure.
Jessica Chastain, inset, plays Maya, a CIA agent. We first meet her when she is attending an interrogation during which a suspect is waterboarded. Chastain's character looks uneasy, but says nothing to stop the process. Maya's inaction is more believable than the dialogue of the lead interrogator, who tells the suspect: "This is what defeat looks like, bro." It is the first of several instances where the dialogue sounds as if it has fled straight from a comic book, with Maya turning out to be the worst offender of all when it comes to swagger-speak.
Bigelow's film, with a screenplay by Mark Boal, who also wrote The Hurt Locker, is more convincing when it comes to depicting the chaotic, frustrating, painstakingly slow process of gathering intelligence. Someone gives a name, which leads to another name, and so on. Maya realises that in the hunt for Bin Laden, it will come down to a case not of following the money, but tracking the messenger.
It was a long hunt, with many detours, but Bigelow and Boal keep the pace rattling along. Centre of their attention is Maya. We don't know much more about her personally at the end of the picture than at the start, but it is plain she is driven to the point of obsession. In that, she stands as a symbol of all those who would not give up the hunt. When not representing them, Maya has the weight of womanhood on her shoulders, showing women can be just as tough as men when required. As with the dialogue, this can seem forced at times.
Zero Dark Thirty, which is up for three Oscars (best actress for Chastain, best picture and best screenplay) comes into its own when it moves to the end game in Washington DC. With an intelligence community already burned by the debacle of the WMD that never were, the film shows what a chance was taken to launch the Abbottabad mission.
Then it's on to the night of the raid itself. Bigelow, deploying night vision and hand-held cameras, lets actions speak for themselves. It is a brilliant sequence, a nerve-jangling final act in a tale of justice served that's all the more impressive for the outcome being known.