Enveloped by dark cinema, and presented with a black screen, you’re slowly submerged into a wall of audio panic. The sounds of news television, fleeting radio grabs, fire/police scanners reverberate throughout – culminating with a 911 call and a devastating ominous silence. The sounds of September 11 2001 are the emotional wrench that begins Academy award winning director, Kathryn Bigelow’s espionage odyssey of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden until his death at the hands of Seal Team Six in May 2011.
In the wake of Bigelow’s Oscar winning examination of the destructive impulses of modern American masculinity in the The Hurt Locker, one may wonder what else Bigelow has to say about war. The central figure of Zero Dark Thirty, CIA operative Maya (Jessica Chastain) provides the opportunity for a unique feminine perspective. And no, this isn’t hard feminist diatribe, or a clumsy, didactic, antiwar message; it’s an opportunity to drop an assertive, impassioned and more empathetic protagonist into a situation ripe for a Reagan Era Rambo to go in an liberally kill all Muslims until vengeance was had. Instead Bigelow presents harsh truths and poses uncomfortable questions. How far would a nation go to avenge their people? What morally bankrupt exercises could/would you conduct in the name of “freedom”? Torture, brutality, coercion, manipulation, deceit – there are no rules, just the objective at all costs. The result is a powerfully engaging dramatic work that is easily Bigelow’s most accomplished directorial effort. Despite the fact that you’re totally familiar with the outcome – experiencing Zero Dark Thirty elicits hair raising tension and furthermore, this reviewer’s usual apathy toward cinematic ‘pretend’ violence experienced its own breakdown so that by the end of the film every rifle burst, and explosive door opening had one jumping and shaking in their seat.
It’s a commendable feat from screenwriter, Mark Boal to be able to pace the arduous investigation, (and the decade of roadblocks) toward the forgone conclusion and still be able to generate the anxiety and frustration of the investigation. This event’s historic significance is still registering its effects on modern history – and yet Boal’s script (under Bigelow’s direction) is told with an objectivity usually afforded by much longer hindsight.
Chastain’s Maya is Bigelow and Boal’s focal point. Chastain’s inexperience but stoic characterisation of Maya applies the necessary subtle repression of the horrors and darkness she’s shrouded in. And in the briefest of windows that you’re exposed to Maya’s obsession the objective isn’t to give you an easily quantifiable and simplistic idea of who she ‘really’ is. It’s a deft performance, crafted by Chastain and Bigelow.
While Chastain is the focus of the film there’s an integral and eclectic support cast throughout each segment of her journey. Jason Clarke’s Dan, the field operative/interrogator that takes Maya under his wing is a fascinating case study of humanity in the face of post 9/11 morality. Kyle Chandler’s Joseph Bradley represents the mutating agendas of politics at home dictating decisions on the front line. James Gandolfini’s C.I.A director oozes the power and fear of the ramifications of this investigation failing in the face of the chiefs of staff. Joel Edgerton and Chris Pratt’s Seal Team Six officers humanise the now legendary unit, accustomed to overcoming the seemingly impossible.
Spectacular performances, brilliant direction and tight scripting are all weaved into visual prose and potent source material to make Zero Dark Thirty not only great, but important.
Directed: Kathryn Bigelow
Written by: Mark Boal (screenplay)
Starring: Chris Pratt, Jessica Chastain, Jennifer Ehle, Harold Perrineau, Kyle Chandler, James Gandolfini and Joel Edgerton