Jostling for UK box office attention this week alongside Steven Spielberg’s awards magnet Lincoln (2012), Kathryn Bigelow’s divisive drama Zero Dark Thirty (2012) shares comparable megalomanic concern. In place of the iconic American slavery abolisher is Jessica Chastain’s CIA ‘killer’ Maya, conscripted into the War on Terror to find and neutralise Public Enemy No. 1, Osama bin Laden. Released amidst a blizzard of controversy attaining to its stance on state-sanctioned torture, Bigelow has followed up her Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker (2008) with a more drawn, though arguably equally crafted portrayal of obsession and sacrifice.
Beginning with a blacked out screen, heightening the emotional impact of several genuine phone calls to New York emergency services during the World Trade Centre terrorist attack of September 11th, 2001, Bigelow pulls her (reluctant?) audience into the covert world of US military intelligence – as admirable, in part, as it is repugnant. Chastain’s stony-faced CIA officer functions as both our eyes and ears in this amoral (rather than brave) new world, staunchly committed to the bloody task at hand. As Maya travels further down the dark and murky post-9/11 rabbit hole, ethical codes are brushed aside, leads perilously pursued and lives devastated irrevocably until – as the story goes – ‘UBL’ is brought to justice via the barrel of a gun.
First thing’s first – in regards to its handling of detainee torture, Zero Dark Thirty’s Osama hunt was always likely to be faced with an unenviable Catch 22 scenario. The award-winning Bigelow – the first female filmmaker ever to win the Academy’s prestigious Best Director Oscar – faced two equally daunting choices: either a) show the CIA’s well-documented acts of torture against suspected al Qaeda operatives, and face accusations of promoting such heinous practices, or; b) erase such procedures from the film entirely, and await the conspiracy-hungry cries of ‘whitewash’/’cover-up’. In this case, Bigelow has chosen the former, yet refuses to glamorise the CIA’s brutal techniques.
Much of what is garnered through waterboarding and other such Geneva Convention-defying methods (actioned mostly by an impressive Jason Clarke) ultimately proves of little value to Maya, her team nor the film’s narrative as a whole. Red herring after red herring ensues, with our defiantly devoted protagonist seemingly no closer to bagging her man until the discovery of a secure compound located within an affluent Abbottabad suburb. After so many near misses and a slow – even arduous – build-up, Zero Dark Thirty’s final quarter sees Bigelow in full-on action mode, as US forces assault bin Laden’s refuge under the cover of nightfall. Tracer bullets and plastic explosives light the gloom as Joel Edgerton and co.’s SEAL Team 6 make their fateful assault upon the al Qaeda head’s concrete lair, with the inevitable outcome already a foretold certainty.
Running at a hardly slight 157 minutes, a great deal of Bigelow’s historical procedural is concerned with Maya’s evolution from eager-to-please greenhorn to hard-nosed “motherfucker” (her own words). Thankfully, Chastain – as ever – is a captivating screen presence, embellishing her tireless huntress with just enough fallibility to make her at least partly sympathetic. Yet the film’s real eye-catching moments, as with nearly all of Bigelow’s oeuvre to-date, come courtesy of several impeccably orchestrated set pieces. When looked back upon in years to come, Zero Dark Thirty may still retain its most fervent critics. What it does succeed in doing, however, is capturing the melancholy, tension and uncertainty of one of America’s most difficult decades, perfectly encapsulated in the film’s closing shots.