Kathryn Bigelow’s follow-up to the Best Picture Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker began life as a chronicle of the failed hunt for Osama bin Laden. Then the Americans found him necessitating a hasty rewrite. The film has garnered a great deal of attention and hype, not all of it desirable, but it is among a core handful of films sharing most of the big Oscar nominations this awards season.
Let’s get this out of the way first; Zero Dark Thirty does not glorify torture. The opening half hour of the film depicts a significant detainee who may or may not have information that could reveal bin Laden’s whereabouts. The CIA unsuccessfully attempts to extract this information with a combination of waterboarding and humiliation tactics. A clear distinction must be drawn between what the film practices and what it preaches and ZDT does nothing to celebrate torture at all.
With that out of the way, is it a good film? Well, yes, as it happens. It works best as an examination of professional obsession as opposed to a real world thriller. The lead character is Maya (Jessica Chastain), the CIA agent in charge of finding bin Laden and most of the running time focuses on her night and day fixation on her task. Chastain is excellent, completely convincing as a woman so immersed in her job it makes her look a little ill. The final shot in which she begins to come to terms with the truth of having succeeded, now having to face the task of rebuilding her life with something new, is particularly moving.
She’s aided by an extremely capable cast of supporting players including Jason Clarke, Jennifer Ehle, Kyle Chandler and Mark Strong and the insight into the processes of following up on potential leads is rather fascinating. The final reel storming of the compound is handled particularly well. It’s tense, it’s drawn out, it doesn’t quite go according to plan and it keeps the flag-waving out entirely.
Sidestepping tastelessness and not living up to controversy at all, Zero Dark Thirty is a strongly-played and captivating dramatisation of true events.