After the considerable and unexpected success of 'The Hurt Locker' (2008), Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow returns to the Middle East and the post-9/11 world, but with a story more vast and complicated than a meditation on soldiers in conflict. For her follow-up, Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal have taken on the story of the "greatest manhunt in history", the tracking-down and killing of Osama bin Laden. While it seems an obvious choice for material, almost returning to well-trodden ground for the team, 'Zero Dark Thirty' turns out to be a very different beast, and possibly a more fulfilling one.
Rather than trying to capture the entire scope of the manhunt, the film uses as its focus point a young woman at the centre of it, Maya (Jessica Chastain). Following her placement in the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan, she becomes fixated on the "needle in a haystack" task of tracking the man down through the intricate and confusing web of the Middle East, a task that leads her through years of dead leads, terrorist attacks, bombings, torture sessions and personal casualties. As the chances of finding bin Laden seem to fade, Maya finds herself holding the key to the only credible lead they may have.
There is always that fear with a story like this that the audience isn't going to go along with you when they know how it will all end. Thankfully, Bigelow and Boal are aware of this, and rather than pretending the audience won't know where they're going, the film moves with the careful inevitability of a well-constructed puzzle. Launching straight off from September 11 with a chilling soundscape, the film is structured as a series of chapters, focusing on each major shift in the search. Rather than the intimacy of 'The Hurt Locker', the scope of 'Zero' is much wider, covering multiple countries over nearly a decade. By choosing Maya as a single point of focus, it allows us to move through the dense information with ease and keen interest, rather than multiple story lines flapping in the wind. The search for bin Laden is reduced from an international event to a personal journey, and for an audience, this makes the film easier to digest and more emotionally resonant. Bigelow builds on her striking work in 'Locker', her handle on the film's rhythm and tone expert and tight, and Boal's screenplay balances that fine line of exposition, action and emotional resonance beautifully. The editing is furious and calculated, the cinematography moves with a documentary style that still remains cinematic, and the sound design packs a mighty punch.
For 'Zero', Bigelow has assembled an incredibly strong ensemble cast, wisely steering away from big names for well-trained television and theatre actors. Surprises include Jennifer Ehle, Kyle Chandler, Mark Strong, James Gandolfini, Stephen Dillane, Joel Edgerton and Chris Pratt, giving each of their small but integral roles conviction and strength. However, Maya is the central figure of the film, and none of the ensemble make any attempt to work against that. Adding yet another impressive performance to a growing list, Jessica Chastain is electrifying as Maya, a tremendous balance of spunk, vulnerability, tenacity and brute strength. With all the award recognition she has been receiving, you'd expect hers to be a showy, star-making performance when, in fact, it turns out to be the complete opposite. In the hands of a less capable actor, or even a less capable director, Maya may have become the 90s stereotype of the masculine-woman-of-action, but thankfully that isn't what we have at all. There is subtlety here, a quiet strength and quiet victories. We don't learn much about Maya's personal life, but both the film and Chastain make it clear that this isn't what we should be concerned with. This is a woman for whom this manhunt is everything, and Chastain pours as much devotion into her performance as Maya does into the hunt. It is clear both Chastain and Bigelow revel in the possibilities of this tremendous female protagonist.
Jessica Chastain is electrifying as Maya, a tremendous balance of spunk, vulnerability, tenacity and brute strength.
The culminating result is an impressive addition to the history film genre, and it's clear that is where it's being pitched. We might know where the film is going, but like any great recreation of an historical event, 'Zero Dark Thirty' finds us on the edge of our seats to find out how it happened. As it progresses, the tension continues to build towards the strike itself, an impressive sequence both in its action and its abruptness. There is no sentimentality in this film, no sense of overt patriotism. It doesn't even shy away from the fact that the U.S. used torture as a means of getting intelligence during the Bush years, or the ramifications of Obama bring this method to an end. The film acts as an observer to history through the eyes of someone involved, and rather than making judgements, it presents these events to us as something we can take away and consider for ourselves. There is no moment of American patriotism at the end, no neat little monologue to let us know what the moral of the story is, no people crying in exaltation at the death of this terrorist. What Kathryn Bigelow has offered instead is a mature, provocative and constantly intriguing film, far more so than 'The Hurt Locker'. With all the awards hype that has surrounded this film in the past few months, it's a relief and a pleasant surprise to find that 'Zero Dark Thirty' is a film worthy of that attention, and one that will surely be talked about for years to come.