20 February 2013

Review: Zero Dark Thirty

(Dir: Kathryn Bigelow, 2012)

Zero Dark Thirty exists in that weird bubble where the audience goes in knowing the outcome, spending two and a half hours literally anticipating it. Yet throughout that time it manages to offer both tension and moments of doubt. That’s pretty good going when you’re telling the story of how the most wanted man on earth was finally brought to justice, but getting that balance is also pretty important in the context of good storytelling.

Starting with a subtly poignant reminder why we’re hunting this man, something clearly intended to put the audience in the mindset of needing to persevere for justice, the story of Zero Dark Thirty covers a decade of intelligence work and frustrations mostly set in Pakistan. It’s resolutely not an action film, building and building to the payoff which is a superbly executed special ops mission stealthily enlivened by the green hue of night vision and the light thud of silenced automatic rifles. This is more about the process than the actual take down which makes for a more interesting story. Knowing it’s based on true events stops it falling into what’s becoming cliche in so many of the recent films hunting terror suspects in this region of the world. 

Zero Dark Thirty is a highly analytical film. It’s about analysis, it’s about details, it’s about the obsession over finding the answer when you’ve enveloped yourself within all this detail. Unfortunately that means it’s also clinical in nature. The story needs something to hang onto so we’re given Maya (Jessica Chastain), a CIA agent with the insatiable thirst to succeed in this mission. Chastain is good and continues her trend of being an asset to whatever film she’s in, but here her character is too cold. For most of the film there’s no real emotion expressed and we get next to no background, let alone any specific reason for her obsessiveness. We root for her because she’s doing something that must be done, but perhaps this lack of personality makes her character a cypher for us to project our own need to see justice successfully delivered. Cutting the head off the snake may be a short-term fix but it will temporarily quell a fear now deeply rooted within us. I was left more than curious about this underdeveloped character.

The rest of the cast are incidental, appearing as and when needed and consisting of a variety of recognisable faces. All are consistently solid. What’s more curious is the debate that has arisen over torture as an acceptable interrogation method and whether it was actually used in order to get to this result. The way it’s portrayed in Zero Dark Thirty is probably tamer than elsewhere (24 comes to mind in that respect) but it was obviously happening and yielding results. The film never feels like it’s approving of it as there are no judgements made, we’re just getting a reportage of the events.

I’ve always found Kathryn Bigelow an interesting director, having in particular been a big fan of both Point Break and Strange Days since the early to mid nineties respectively. Zero Dark Thirty isn’t her best work, nor is it her most satisfying. When it comes to the climatic event it creates a rush of emotion that should be expected due to the importance of what we’re seeing and thanks to the journey we’ve been on, but any competent director would achieve that with this story. It seems to lack something she usually brings to the table. This is a film detached from personality which is probably a good thing as involving an emotional angle would only serve to negatively distract; nonetheless the clinical execution still holds it at a distance from the audience. Zero Dark Thirty is a fascinating, absorbing and thrilling journey. It’s very good, yes, but best picture quality, no.

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