Zero Dark Thirty surpasses even Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker

Annabel Denham
Follow Annabel
Cert 12A

Zero Dark Thirty is military jargon for the precise time, 12.30am, when US Navy SEALs first set foot in Usama bin Laden's (“UBL”) hideout. It is also the name of director Kathryn Bigelow's latest collaboration with screenwriter Mark Boal (they are the Oscar winning duo of Hurt Locker fame). The film was released to wide critical acclaim – it received five Oscar nominations – and a heavy onslaught of criticism for its alleged glorification of torture: accusations that are more than a little ridiculous.

Boal, a trained journalist, went through a laborious, decade-long fact-gathering process (almost as long as the CIA mission his film depicts), that included obtaining first-hand accounts from counter-terrorist operatives. To omit any, ahem, questionable methods of coercion he uncovered would be sugarcoating history. In the event, the film does nothing to glorify these methods – quite the opposite, in fact. Bigelow’s film deliberately questions the efficacy of torture: it is a combination of bribery, surveillance, and the discovery of an old file by a CIA analyst, that ultimately leads agents to bin Laden's compound.

Despite the controversy, it’s not long until the torture scenes are over, and the focus shifts to documenting the CIA’s frustrating struggle to find a “needle in the haystack”. Tension builds as they attempt to tap into bin Laden's labyrinthine network – an operation that takes almost a decade and is punctuated by a series of attacks (London's 7/7, the Taj Mahal Hotel bombing).

Maya (played by Jessica Chastain) undergoes a radical transformation from wide-eyed novice to hardened navigator of the counter-terrorism world. For the first hour, she is a distant character, with the supporting cast – Jason Clarke and the consistently excellent Jennifer Ehle – taking centre stage. It’s only halfway through the film, when Maya breaks her calm during a heated exchange, that you start to see why Chastain should win the Oscar she’s been nominated for.

The setting switches from the clinical corridors of Langley (do US government officials really swear this much? They never did in the West Wing) to the US Embassy in Pakistan, as the small team of CIA agents hit endless stumbling blocks in their prolonged intelligence gathering process.

When the much-anticipated finale arrives, after two hours of buildup, you feel like you’ve earned it. And Bigelow doesn’t disappoint: it’s a nail-biting climax, even though you know the outcome. It’s filmed primarily through the SEALs’ night vision goggles – a very effective tactic for building suspense when used well (not like Arnie's Eraser). The scene's realism never falters: Bigelow’s production team built, brick by brick, a 38,000 square foot compound based on blueprints; black hawks were actually used. There can be little doubt that Bigelow is Hollywood’s foremost narrator of 21st century warfare.

Zero Dark Thirty is a powerful, gripping thriller that even surpasses Bigelow’s last outing – it deserves to be judged on its own merits, rather than by the half-baked controversy it unfairly finds itself mired within.