Saturday, 23 February 2013

Zero Dark Thirty

Academy Award Nominations: 5

·         Best Picture
·         Best Actress (Jessica Chastain)
·         Best Original Screenplay (Mark Boal)
·         Best Film Editing (Dylan Tichenor, William Goldenberg)
·         Best Sound Editing

Maya, a young CIA officer, is a woman on a mission. Her career revolves around gathering intelligence in regards to the whereabouts of the world's most wanted man: Osama Bin Laden. After being relocated to Pakistan to face the search head-on, she begins to work with Dan, a fellow officer who uses less than legal techniques to force detainees to reveal information. After one Saudi detainee cracks, they learn that a man called Abu Ahmed is working as a personal courier for Bin Laden, and since Bin Laden never steps outside, he'll be the man to look for. So begins the hunt for Abu Ahmed, and ultimately Osama Bin Laden, in "the greatest manhunt in history"...

Zero Dark Thirty comes with two stigmas attached to it which make it a tricky film to judge without having seen it. The first is that this film was shrouded in secrecy for months and it was directed by Kathryn Bigelow, winner of Best Director and Best Picture for The Hurt Locker at the Oscars a few years ago, one of the best war movies I've seen to date, and starts Jessica Chastain, a woman who has come out of nowhere to become one of Hollywood's most in demand actresses, so Zero Dark Thirty has some fair amount of pedigree attached to it. On the other hand, this has been the most controversial  film of this year's Best Picture picks because of its graphic representation of torture and humiliation of Saudi detainees by American security forces. Whether or not it's fact, it's in the film, so will it distract from what's billed as the greatest manhunt in history? Thankfully, no.

This is a gritty, real life war drama, unsurprisingly in the same vein as The Hurt Locker; it's filmed in much the same way, set in similar looking places and tells a story which seems the same but is entirely different. This isn't about the front line side of the war on terror, this is about the behind the scenes work, the intelligence gathering and paperwork that leads to the front line action, or in this instance, SEAL Team 6 secretly entering Pakistan and entering a fortified compound to find and kill Osama Bin Laden. It's all shot well, and the drama builds up well over the two and a half hour run time, enough that my initial scepticism with the film was thrown out the window by the half way point and I was hooked despite knowing the outcome. Sometimes, it's more about the way something happened rather than the actual outcome, and this is most definitely on of those cases.

That's helped by centring the film around one single character: Maya, the CIA officer who leads the hunt for intelligence leading to Bin Laden's location. Jessica Chastain's performance as Maya is so pitch perfect, I can't see anyone outdoing her for Best Actress this year after she fell short for The Tree of Life last year (though at the time of writing, I've yet to see Amour, which is said to feature an extremely strong Emmanuelle Riva performance). The character is fundamentally flawed by her determination and unrelenting pursuit of Bin Laden and the Abu Ahmed lead, even when it seems like a dead end. However, she becomes extremely likeable, you want her to succeed despite her cold determination and unrelenting nature, and it's that the keeps the film together. Zero Dark Thirty is less about killing Bin Laden, and more about wanting to see Maya succeed. Otherwise, though, all the other characters seem like war movie clichés, there's no-one else who's truly notable in this film other than the fact that there are some surprising names playing roles here (like did anyone else know that Kyle Chandler, Mark Strong and Chris Pratt were in this before they saw it?) and that seems like a wasted opportunity. The only other semi-strong character is Dan, the torturer, played by Jason Clarke, but he's missing for large parts of the movie so you never get to see him deal with the repercussions of his actions, which could have made for interesting viewing.

Story wise, this is a fascinating tale of how the hunt for Bin Laden was so fruitless for so long and how many lives were lost during the hunt, and then how it all came to fruition in 2011. It's written sharply, and though there may be a few historical inaccuracies, it's still a great watch. In particular, the climax of the film where SEAL Team 6 enter the compound to find Bin Laden is brilliantly done, as it all takes place in real time. With the first person shots shot in night vision, and events happening in real time, it's as close as you or I are likely to get to being on an actual stealth mission, and it's an eye opening experience. That's not to say that the two hours previous to this isn't great, in fact it's enthralling viewing, akin to many political thrillers in the building of drama and tension, but the climax is so comparably different to the rest of the film that it's intriguing to see both halves of the war being shown on screen next to each other.

Overall, Zero Dark Thirty is a film I really liked because it showed more of a human side to the war on terror and how the process of finding Bin Laden took place. It's a great story, and Mark Boal creates one great character in which to bring this story to life, it's just a shame there aren't any more to back her up. Bigelow's style of directing doesn't change, making this almost like a companion piece to The Hurt Locker in many ways, but an entirely different film in other ways too. This isn't the best film I've seen this year, and it isn't the best war film I've seen, let alone the best war film by Kathryn Bigelow, but it's a good effort and definitely deserves to be a part of anyone's DVD collection.

Rating: ****

Zero Dark Thirty was released on 25th January 2013 and is still being shown in cinemas.