Kathyrn Bigelow loves tech and testosterone. From the likes of Point Break and The Hurt Locker we’ve learned this already. The latter even beat former-husband James Cameron at his own game at the 2010 Oscars. When it was announced that her follow-up project was to be Zero Dark Thirty – a blow-by-blow of the CIA’s decade-long search for Osama Bin Laden – there was little room for surprise. This was going to be another tough, punchy, overtly masculine roll in the dirt… right?
Don’t be so sure. In fact, Zero Dark Thirty is none of those things. Intelligent and demanding as opposed to simply tough, brooding and meticulous instead of punchy. And, with a phenomenal leading performance from Jessica Chastain, not quite the drop-your-cocks-and-grab-your-socks sausage fest I’d been fool enough to have assumed. Chastain’s CIA agent Maya operates in a man’s world, there’s no denying it, just as there’s no denying her ability to meet any of her peers head-on and win, yet she still centres the film with a strong, determined femininity. And what a film this is. Clocking in at 2 hours 37 minutes, ZDT is an intimidating proposition.
I approached it tentatively. The Hurt Locker was initially gripping, yes. But its effect was also temporary and suffers repeat viewings. The whole thing hinges on its vice-like suspense. Once the outcome is known, you’re left with a bolshy little movie with a great deal less to say other than that, for some, the adrenaline shot of war is a poison with precious little antidote. You know as much about Jeremy Renner’s character at the end as you did at the start. And whilst that film did neatly avoid pointed banner-waving, it seemed hard to feature Zero Dark Thirty managing the same level of restraint. This is how they killed Bin Laden. How could it not be one long, overblown chest-bump? A live action Team America World Police.
Thankfully it isn’t. Bigelow’s movie – long but perfectly paced – instead plays out like a sort of police procedural, albeit one where world events are held in the balance. Stretches of Maya’s investigation here feel very similar to sequences from The Wire. A board of labelled faces connected by strings of intel, monitored cell-phones and coerced informants. The patient drip-feed of information; a laborious process in which even the smallest piece of gained ground feels like a victory in itself. Maya is the central figure in the most important major crimes unit America has ever bankrolled.
She is consumed by her goal. I’ve seen ZDT compared to Zodiac (one of my favourite films of the last 10 years). It’s a fitting match. Both are exacting in their scrutiny, keen to portray a protracted bullet-pointed journey. Both also focus on obsessive investigators, driven to extreme ends to find their answer. Of course, where they differ is in their outcomes. Zodiac boils down to unproven certainties, minutiae, tentativeness. A knowing look across a shop counter. ZDT culminates in an extraordinary nighttime assault, breath-snatchingly staged. Tech and testosterone. It may be a forgone conclusion, but the mission is grimly riveting. An uncomfortable, precision snuff movie. When that moment comes, it’s over in an instant. If Bigelow had expanded time, exploiting the kill-shot gratuitously (as many lesser directors might have) ZDT would have fallen apart. That it’s over so fast almost leaves the audience with nowhere to go. Where’s that cathartic crescendo? It comes later, in a more personal moment when Maya’s alone.
As impressive as all this back-end stuff is, the two hours that precede it are just as enthralling. Mark Boal’s screenplay has the unenviable task of sifting through the data to lock-down a cohesive journey, but it does the job. Rarely do we get too bogged down in names and places or back story. Maya herself is presented as a woman who lives for her work (something common in Bigelow protagonists). It’s her personal life that is classified, as James Gandolfini’s CIA director discovers. We get the most fleeting of glances at photos which suggest a life outside of her mission, but even they are sidelined. There to spot if you can. Good. Zero Dark Thirty is all-the-better for stripping away the excesses of family commitments. Something Argo would’ve done well to have avoided.
So whilst Chastain necessarily gives up screen time in the last half hour to let the SEAL Team Six fellas do their thing, it is her determination and compulsion to see it through that lingers in the mind. It just happens that her goal is the death of one man. But that’s the morally turgid world she lives in. Bigelow lets the audience decide where they stand on hot-potato subjects like torture and government-sanctioned assassination. Like everything else in this inherently messy business, they are depicted without bias. Warts and all. A great many readings can be made into Maya’s final tears.
Whether you agree with the methodology is up to you. al-Qaeda’s grievances are not addressed here. Neither for that matter are the rights or wrongs of US foreign policy. Bigelow’s movie is merely the step-by-step. Is this a missed opportunity? Perhaps. But in reconstructing events as opposed to overtly forwarding an opinion on them Bigelow has crafted a fiercely efficient procedural sidestepping divisive soapboxing.
What can’t be faulted is the talent at work here. Zero Dark Thirty marks career-bests for both Bigelow and Chastain. Riveting, tense and exactingly edited, this is serious Hollywood filmmaking about serious subject matter. Yes, it’s a little heavy, of course it is, but like the other great factual movies of recent times – from Michael Mann’s The Insider to David Fincher’s aforementioned Zodiac – it is this unshaking commitment to intelligence and proclaimed authenticity that reap dividends in the long run.
Zero Dark Thirty is a film that demands your attention. And one which surpassed my expectations, whilst questioning what serves as entertainment, what quantifies dramatisation, and where the line is between the two.