The Watchers

The Watchers

Sunday, 27 January 2013

Review: Zero Dark Thirty (UK Cert 15)

Chronicling the CIA's ten-year manhunt to find Osama Bin Laden, Zero Dark Thirty is a tense, taut thriller by the same writing and directing team behind The Hurt LockerDirector Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal had to rewrite their original script when news broke in May 2011 of Bin Laden's death and there have been accusations that they have had improper access to classified information of the raid in which Bin Laden died. Indeed, the film's release was bumped back from October so as not to be used as political propaganda for the 2012 election in America.

The main character, Maya (Jessica Chastain), is allegedly based on a real-life female undercover CIA agent. As a character, Maya remains unknowable, defined entirely by her job and by the hunt for Bin Laden. We know precious little about her life, apart from the fact she was recruited by the CIA straight from high school. Tenacious, brave and dedicated, she remains convinced of the strength of her intelligence even when others doubt it. Evidence of that is her writing the number of days without action on her boss' window which we see creep up and up as the story goes on. The final scene of the film packs an emotional punch and it is to Chastain's credit that this doesn't feel indulgent or sentimental. It's a bravura performance by Chastain throughout; I haven't seen her give a bad performance yet and the chances of her winning the Best Actress Oscar seem incredibly high- it would be well deserved if she did.

Chastain's performance has been garnering much of the attention but the rest of the cast provide equally compelling performances, notably Jason Clarke (last seen in Lawless) as Dan, an agent brought to the edge by the work that he does; Jennifer Ehle as Jennifer, a colleague of Maya's whom she forms a friendship with; Kyle Chandler and Mark Strong are excellent as Maya's bosses, really giving Chastain something to spark off, and the assembled cast of Joel Edgerton, Chris Pratt and Taylor Kinney as members of the US Navy SEALs division that carry out the final raid.

A lot has been made of the scenes of torture that are included in the film. In my opinion, it would have been disingenuous in the extreme to not acknowledge that torture was used on suspects. We know it was; to not even mention it would be an arrant weakness. The moral and ethical rights of the use of torture is another argument entirely and it's one I'm not getting into here. From my point of view, the film does not glorify or hold the use of torture up as a good thing; it shows that it happened (in brutal and uncompromising detail) but, crucially, it does not implicitly state that it was because of information gained in torturing captives which led them to the compound.

The raid on the compound in Abbottabad (which makes up the film's final act) is thrilling and tense, even though we know what the outcome will be. The entire film has a grave and slightly grim inevitability to it, as each terrorist attack is shown and the intelligence builds up. It's not an easy watch by any means- the use of real-life telephone calls from the World Trade Center and a devastatingly authentic recreation of the Tavistock Square bus bombing that happened in London in 2005 pack a real gut-punch- and it will provoke fierce debate and make you question your own position on the issues raised. It's a film that has been playing on my mind since I saw it, and I feel it will continue to do so for some time to come.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5


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