When you hear that an Oscar winning team are going to be collaborating again on a film (in this case, Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal, the Oscar winning duo behind The Hurt Locker), then there’s always going to be a certain amount of buzz in the air about it. And when you consider the subject of Zero Dark Thirty, their most recent collaboration, which chronicles the War on Terror and the hunt for Bin Laden, then that anticipation is even greater, especially given that it came out so soon after Bin Laden was killed.
The film opens with a sequence that is as audacious and daring as I’ve seen in film in the last few years, by using voices and recordings from the tragic attacks that took place on September 11th. There is no imagery to accompany this, just the voices and a black screen, and that creates a realism that’s almost unsettling. It is, however, handled with such deftness by Bigelow and Boal, that it does not descend into emotionally exploitative territory. Instead, this opening sequence crafts a bold tone that remains with the film throughout it; the fact that it is very real movie, documenting real events.
With this realism, some of the unsavoury elements of both the terrorists and the US military are seen in rather unflinching detail. The film starkly shows an unsettling and visceral torture performed by Dan (Jason Clarke) on a detainee in order to gain information. The torture debate is something that has impacted Zero Dark Thirty since it’s first showings, so I suppose it’s almost impossible to mention it without weighing in on the torture debate. Personally, I think that the film does not glorify torture, nor does it demonise it. Instead, it shows that it is, for want of better phrasing, seen as a necessary evil under extreme circumstances (even though later in the film it is mentioned that information gained through such methods cannot be fully trusted). After all, this is real.
Once we meet Dan, we are also introduced to Maya (Jessica Chastain, delivering a powerhouse of a performance), and it is through her that we see all of the events that transpire. Chastain’s performance is utterly monumental, perhaps eclipsing all of her stellar work from 2011, and in watching Maya develop, we see a human impact of the War on Terror that is psychological as well as just physical. To begin with, Maya shirks away from torture, almost cringing when she witnesses it. However, as the film progresses, and she and those around her begin to suffer the consequences of the War on Terror, she begins to change in subtle ways, becoming driven almost to a fault, as she finds herself stepping closer and closer to the edge. This is something best illustrated in the film’s final moments. The ending frames of this film are a testament to Chastain’s ability as an actress, as a side to her character that has remained almost unseen for the entirety of the film slowly creeps into life, in a moment that is almost heartbreaking in its emotional resonance.
The excellence of Chastain’s performance however, seems to cause the supporting players in the film to live in her shadow, which is a terrible injustice to the skill of those around of her. Clarke is excellent as Dan, giving an explosive performance that grips the audience from the off. Kyle Chandler (perhaps best known for Friday Night Lights) is also excellent as CIA Director Joseph Bradley. Chandler brings a gravitas and dramatic depth to the role that allows him to stand out amongst the crowd, and the scenes that he has with Chastain are perhaps some of the best showcases of the talent on display throughout the film.
Of course, with the subject matter at hand, perhaps the principle of Zero Dark Thirty is that the ending of the film is a foregone conclusion. We all know who they have in the black bag as the film draws to a close, so keeping the audience caring about the characters for the film’s lengthy running time proves to be an almost Herculean task. However, from the excellent screenplay by Boal, at once a wartime epic of sorts, as well as an intimate character study, and the skill of the actors, keeping the audience interested ceases to be a problem. In fact, this foregone conclusion produces one of the most tense and well executed pieces of cinema that I’ve seen all year; the film’s final act is so well done that, despite knowing how it ends, you’re thrust to the edge of your seat for it’s entirety.
Another issue that could arise from it, is, once the conclusion has been shown, creating a strange dissonance in mood, perhaps descending into either a contrived sentimentality, or chest-beating patriotism. This is another pitfall that Boal’s screenplay deftly avoids, carrying that sense of realism through to the film’s final fade to black.
Both epic and intimate, harrowing and human, Zero Dark Thirty has accomplished something rather spectacular. Through masterful craft, exceptional writing and direction, and Chastain giving one of the best performances of the year, it has managed to craft a portrait of a tumultuous period in American and world history without feeling contrived in the emotional responeses that it creates. Presenting a War on Terror without taking a clear side on whether what was done was good or bad, it creates a human element. Particularly through Boal’s writing (which is, as this film is as a whole, leagues better than The Hurt Locker), Zero Dark Thirty could go on to be remembered as a film that managed to show, for all its faults, and its inevitable triumph, one of the most significant events in recent American history. Easily one of the best films I’ve seen all year, if not the best one outright. Go and see it, I implore you. You won’t be disappointed.